A dramatic increase in the number of regional tourists in the last few years has not only caught Bhutan’s tourism sector by surprise, but it now threatens Bhutan’s unique selling proposition (USP) of being an exclusive destination if nothing is done.
2011 saw 16,418 regional tourists compared to 47,610 dollar paying tourists but in 2015 just until October end, there were 88,528 regional tourists compared to 47,628 dollar paying tourists for the same period.
Tourism experts predict that regional tourists numbers could well touch or cross 100,000 by the end of 2015. This would be the first time that regional tourists would surpass dollar paying ones.
What is troubling the tourism stakeholders in Bhutan is that of the 88,528 regional tourists around 62,107 tourists had travelled by road and only 26,421 travelled by air. This would mean that most of the regional tourists coming by road are the budget regional tourists crowding Bhutan’s tourism USP.
The impact of such numbers on the ground is already being felt both generally and also in specific instances.
The latest and most controversial issue is of some regional tourists swimming in the Mebar Tsho. There was another earlier instance of some regional bikers camping in a VIP zone above Mothithang and below the BBS tower.
There are also general concerns with the impact of such unregulated numbers. Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) Director Chhimmy Pem said that there is a concern with the huge numbers as it would have issues in terms of littering, crowding out of important places like Dzongs and Lhakhangs and safety issues for regional tourists.
The worst case scenario expressed by some tour opearators is of Bhutan becoming like another overcrowded and low end tourism destination like the neighbouring Indian regions of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Gangtok etc. This concern is in the light of the fact that a large portion of the new regional tourists are the same who frequent the above Indian hill stations.
Assocaition of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) Executive Director, Sonam Dorji said that Bhutan’s infrastructure is not upto the mark to take in and accommodate such huge numbers.
He said, “Unlike castles in Europe Bhutanese Dzongs are living institutions with functioning government offices and monk bodies and so can take only limited numbers. Even important Lhakhangs can’t take in large numbers at a time. If there is crowding it will not only affect other tourists but also the local people as it would dilute the local belief and traditions as the tscehus are doen for the benefit of locals.”
Hotel and Restaurant Association (HRAB) President Thinley Palden Dorji said that there were issues of five or more regional budget tourists occupying a single hotel room and even cooking in it.
There is also growing concern from both taxi drivers and tour operating companies about many regional tourists bringing in their own vehicles from across the border, not only denying local vehicles business but also occupying parking space.
Many regional tourists coming by road are known to exchange their INR for Ngultrums at the border and thus fail to bring in INR to the country. Many hotels for instance have been paid in Ngultrum by regional tourists.
Even the National Council in its recent deliberations on the Tourism sector pointed out that unregulated regional tourism as a major issue. The NC called for better regulation of the regional tourism market.
The Bhutan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) had also identified the huge growth of regional tourists as a major issue and has asked for steps to be taken to resolve the issue.
All the stakeholders agree that the growth of regional tourists has taken place mainly due to regional tourists ‘discovering’ Bhutan as a destination. Sonam Dorji said that Bhutan coming in the news with high level visits, general media articles on Bhutan and tour operators in regional countries promoting Bhutan are a factor. He said Bhutan also had an appeal as a ‘cheap Switzerland’ experience for regional tourists.
The safety and Bhutan experience for tourists
TCB Director Chhimmy Pem “Our main concern is that given the Tourists are our guests they should be safe and have a good tourism experience by the time they go back.”
Apart from a few cases of unguided regional tourists drowning in Mebar Tsho there are now cases of foreign vehicles being unable to navigate Bhutan’s roads and crashing. Recently an Indian tourist died in Chelila Paro after his bus crashed and there was another instance of an Innova car crashing in Gedu.
Sonam Dorji said without taking local guides there is also a real chance of regional tourists getting lost in the long treks through thick forest and unfamiliar terrain.
He said there could be some misunderstanding also if unguided tourists, not briefed in local customs, could behave in a way that would be offensive to the locals especially at sacred places.
He pointed out that currently regional tourists were aware of and visit only a few areas when Bhutan has a lot more to offer.
The TCB in order to incentivize regional tourists to come through Bhutanese tour operators will be starting an optional system, whereby local tour operators can get all permits in advance for regional tourists coming through Phuntsholing or Paro or for travelling beyond Thimphu, where separate permits are required.
The TCB Director said that the system will be in operation by the end of December 2015. She said regional tourists opting to come through such systems will be able to enjoy the full Bhutan experience and also get good vehicle and hotel facilities.
TCB is also exploring whereby visits to sacred and yet risky places like Mebar Tsho, Taktsang etc should have compulsory guided tours. The Director said that one measure would be to put regional tour operators in direct touch with Bhutanese tour operators.
Sonam Dorji said that if regional tourists use local tour operators then apart from processing time consuming permits, they would be guided on the dos and don’ts, get additional information and visiting options and reduce middlemen. He said the INR would also come directly into the country and taxes could be deducted transparently and local tour operators would use local vehicles.
Given the scope of the issue ABTO, on its own part, submitted recommendations for non-tariff tourists to the TCB a few months ago.
Apart from the permit issue which is being implemented other recommendations were monitoring of hotel occupancy, requirement of Passport or Voter Identity Card for checking-in at a hotel, important sites has to be accompanied by a licensed guide, monitoring of vehicle road-worthiness, introduce green fee for the regional vehicles plying in Bhutan and more research, development and promotion of regional tourist products.
Thinley Palden Dorji said that he had discussed the issue with HRAB budget hotel members and they were willing to have only two to three people in one room and not allow them to cook provided it is regulated by the government. He said that in the absence of regulations the hotels explained that regional tourists would simply go to another hotel which would allow such things.
According to the HRAB President it would not be fair to categorize all those coming via road as budget tourists as some of them stayed in five star and high end hotels too. He said that the numbers are not as much the problem as ensuring quality.
The President said that one more solution would be to have fee systems at important places like Dzongs and Lhakhangs so that it would provide an experience and at the same time allow these places to do better maintenance and improve their facilities for tourists.
He pointed out that even in Indian areas like Sikkim and Ladakh vehicles of other regions were not allowed or in the cases of states there were toll systems. He said in Bhutan’s case simply applying local measures to foreign cars like environment check, fee etc would also be important.
All stakeholders agreed that the stopping of actual movement would not be feasible given that Bhutan enjoys a reciprocal people and vehicle movement understanding with India, especially when people from Bhutan are travelling to eastern and southern Bhutan through Indian highways or travelling to India itself. However, they feel that there is enough room to maneuver and come up with policies and regulations to ensure both quality tourism and a good experience for regional tourists.