Darjeeling was known as the Queen of the Hills in India and was famous world over, especially in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 70’s and a lot of Bollywood movies were shot there.
Bhutan was not as well known and became a late entrant in the world of tourism.
With no control over its borders, Darjeeling practiced mass tourism for a few decades with the result that today it is called the Queen of Dustbins: a nickname incidentally given by their own local people, and this is no exaggeration.
From the well planned Queen of hills it has become a disorganized mass of buildings and crowded streets overflowing with tourists.
One is not saying that all regional tourists are bad. India is an important and big market for high-end regional tourists coming mainly through air.
However, the last six years has witnessed the explosion of not this type of Indian tourist but mass low budget tourism consisting of tourists coming in overwhelming numbers from across the border on their own vehicles or even on noisy bikes with no planned tours and guides.
In 2012 there were 50,722 regional tourists and 54,685 international visa fee paying tourists.
In 2018 of the 274,097 tourists 202,290 were regional tourists and only 71,807 are dollar paying tourists.
The regional tourists are from our regional neighbors but the vast majority are from the India and specifically the Indian state of West Bengal. This is primarily the old Darjeeling, Kalimpong going tourists barring a few that fly in from Delhi and Mumbai.
So a large portion of the regional tourists now coming to Bhutan these days are the ones who used to earlier go to Darjeeling but no longer find it an attractive destination and hence are coming to Bhutan.
While we are able to limit third country mass tourists from the west or other countries through the minimum 250 dollar tariff system we are unable to do the same with regional Indian tourists as we enjoy free trade and also have a relatively open border.
Therefore, if Bhutan does not get a grip on the numbers of regional tourists coming in we could be headed the Darjeeling way.
The impact of mass regional tourism has been immediate and visible with an increasing trash problem visible in our highways as regional tourists throw trash from their car windows and even in sacred sites.
There are multiple cases of regional tourists not respecting our sacred sites by repeatedly sitting on the sacred Thri in Taktshang or pulling similar stunts in other holy sites. Our sacred Tschechus for us is not a tourist festival but it is in the danger of becoming one as large numbers of loud regional tourists crowd these festivals.
There is increased crowing of regional vehicles on our highways and towns worsening a traffic and parking problem.
There is a crowding out of tourism sites as regional tourists overwhelm the limited carrying capacity of our Dzongs, Lhakhangs, natural viewpoints and other places. Bhutanese worshippers have to struggle to get access to their holy monasteries
Bhutan’s towns already suffer from drinking water shortages but this is made worse as water has to be diverted to the increasing number of hotels. In Thimphu most houses don’t get water twice a day but we have a growing number of hotels with luxurious swimming pools that use our municipal drinking water.
Given our mountainous terrain, land is a very scarce commodity but a lot of land is being used in the construction of a large number of hotels to the point that we have an excess supply of rooms and beds.
In 2013 the Tourism loan which is comprised mainly of hotels loans was at the fifth position with 6.87 bn but by 2018 this jumped to a close second place at 27.93 bn.
Many hotels are not doing well and this development already poses a risk to our financial institutions. This oversupply of hotels has also resulted in them lobbying for a version of mass tourism.
The Hotels and service apartments boom has been so great that it is now leading to a housing crisis in major urban areas like Thimphu and Phuentsholing. In both these cities entire families have been asked to move out by landlords converting residential buildings into hotels and service apartments.
A lot of the new constructions coming up are hotels.
The growth of this service industry also means increasing vacancies including jobs that local Bhutanese cannot or will not do. There is already growing pressure on the government to lighten restrictions for foreign workers by the tourism industry.
The only way out for Bhutan is to better regulate such unstable numbers and provide a better experience for visitors including Indian tourists. For such a step Bhutan’s needs India’s cooperation, friendship and trust.
In fact, within India itself there is recognition of the downside of mass tourism or mass people and vehicle movement. For example, Sikkim given its mountainous roads does not allow taxis registered in other states to carry tourists within Sikkim. Ladakh is reeling from the impact of mass tourism after the closing scenes of the Bollywood movie three idiots led to an unsustainable increase in tourism and along with destruction of the sensitive local ecology, a drinking water crisis and mountains of trash over once scenic locations.
Several of India’s north eastern states like Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Nagaland have ‘inner line permit system,’ where even visiting domestic tourists have to seek special permits to be there. The permit system is not only to protect the local culture there but to also regulate large movements of people into such protected areas.
Additional Indian states like Assam, Meghalaya and Manipur have been asking for the same permit system.
For Bhutan, as a small sovereign country, control of its border and some form of control over movement of large masses of people is a paramount issue. An unsustainable, increased and continuous mass movement of regional tourists will have deep impacts on Bhutan.
Bhutan’s core developmental philosophy GNH, is enshrined in our Constitution. In short it means that development is not just GDP linked economic development but development for us is the four pillars of socio-economic development, environmental protection, culture and good governance.
One of the pillars cannot be allowed to impede on over-rule the other three pillars.
The problem with mass tourism is that it goes against the two pillars of environmental protection, and vibrant culture and also impacts the pillar of good governance.
Since the problem comes from across the border the solution should also come from there. An Indian tourist and tour operators herself said that it is high time that Bhutan imposes and embargo on mass tourism from India.
While an embargo is an unrealistic idea, one option is if we can charge Sustainable Development Fees as part of the travel permit for regional tourists. This should be charged on a per day basis.
Regional vehicles should be discouraged inside Bhutan and tourists should be mandated to use Bhutanese vehicles. However, for those who insist on using their vehicles a heavy road and environment tax should be levied.
The TCB and RMA can work together to prevent excessive numbers of hotels and service apartments from coming up.
There could also be a compulsory requirement to come via Bhutanese guides and be part of a guided tour.
Hotels must be mandated and monitored to not keep more than three guests in one double bedroom. Even the hotel pricing should be monitored a minimum level should be below which prices should not drop.
However, while we take steps to control mass regional tourism we should do it carefully and strategically.
Firstly, it should not seem like we are targeting anyone unfairly. We should communicate that it is not against any nationality but the issue is the numbers and specifically those coming by a certain way and with its impact on Bhutan.
Secondly, we can bring in uniform regulations like the SDF which is also recommended in the Pay Commission report.
Third, when the guests are already here we should be careful to not treat them rudely or make them feel unwanted. We are trying to prevent mass tourism not make lifelong enemies of our neighbours.
And finally it boils down to political will and wisdom in implementing this.
“Walking is a virtue, tourism is a deadly sin.”