Although National assembly during the first session of the third parliament endorsed entry and exit of regional tourists through the border towns of Samdrup Jongkhar, Gelephu, Samtse, Nanglam and Pangbang, the government and relevant stakeholders said it can be implemented only if it is feasible.
Lyonchhen (Dr.) Lotay Tshering said, “Druk Phuensum Tshogpa’s (DPT) member from Dewathang-Gomdar Ugyen Dorji moved the motion to open entry points at five locations to allow regional tourist to come in at several occasions. The motion states that tourists coming in to Bhutan should use Bhutanese vehicle and Bhutanese tour guide”.
Lyonchhen said, “Opening of entry point to regional tourists is in the interest of the country and all the political parties including Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa pledged during the campaign that we have to open more entry points at certain locations. But before opening entry points we must thoroughly assess the advantages and disadvantages of such a move, we must have good monitoring tools and efficient system in place.”
Lyonchhen added, “This motion would be very difficult to implement because there are so many things we need to look at. If tourists coming to Bhutan are required to use Bhutanese vehicle and tour guide, we need to ask whether or not this will instead lead to decrease in the number of tourists. We also need to question if it’s a good option if the Indian government also decides to impose the same rule to the Bhutanese travelling to India with the need to hire Indian vehicle and tour guide.”
The Executive Director of Association of Bhutanese Tour Operator (ABTO), Sonam Dorji said, “The association welcomes the decision of National Assembly regarding the entry and exit of regional tourists from border points. Such move would greatly help in promoting the southern regions which are among the least visited places in Bhutan.”
Sonam Dorji said, “This could also help in terms of geographical spread and seasonality in tourism. However, we expect proper management and regulations to be put in place.”
The newly appointed Director of the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), Dorji Dhradhul said, “The possibilities of opening entry points was discussed in parliament and we should open it, but strategically. This is a good move and it should happen but there should be conditions in place. I feel that it should be done slowly and strategically and we should also see if it is feasible. One factor to confirm the feasibility is the facilities we have in our country. Opening more entry points would mean we are welcoming more tourists and when more tourists come in, we have to see whether we have adequate facilities to cater to such inflow of tourists.”
He said, “Presently the tourism sector is the second largest contributor to the government’s revenue but we want to be the first. We have already adopted the organizational slogan, which is, taking tourism to the top as tourism sector has so much potential.”
“If we are to take tourism to the top, we need more revenue and revenue will come from more inflow of tourists”, he added.
Minister for Economic Affairs, Lyonpo Loknath Sharma said, “According to the annual statistical publication, Bhutan Tourism Monitor produced by TCB, in 2017 a total of 254,704 tourists visited Bhutan with a growth rate of 21.5 per cent over 2016. Of the total arrivals, 183,287 tourists were regional tourists. Paro had the highest number of international arrival with 61,523 tourists followed by Thimphu with 59,164 tourists and 51,831 tourists in Punakha. Wangdue Phodrang received 17,781 and Bumthang 11,321. While Zhemgang, Sarpang and Lhuentse received 200 to 300 tourists, Dagana received only 10.”
Lyonpo said, “There are lots of tourists particularly from our neighboring country who want to visit and explore east and center but they are not able to do so because of factors like bad condition of roads or lengthy roads and lack of flight routes or only due to one entry point from Phuentsholing.”
He said, “If we open entry points from Samdrup Jongkhar and Gelephu, those high ends neighboring tourists who would like to visit our places in east and center would get an opportunity to visit and definitely it will have an economic impact because they have the capacity to spend and go into the local market and help our people make income.”
“When more tourists come in, there are of course concerns but that doesn’t mean that by allowing more tourists to come, we will lose our security. We must have good monitoring tools and effective systems in place.
There should be proper system to know the movement of people, where they are moving and if we take care of this system and make our internal control system strong, I am sure that security concern can be resolved. We have to plan it properly and implement it,” Lyonpo added.
In addition, Lyonpo said, “Certain operating system should be in place that will inform how tourists must behave when they are in our country to maintain and ensure the sanctity of our monasteries and dzongs at all times and preserving our customs and traditions. The system should come from us.”
Lyonpo also added that tourism does not have negative economic implication. “So if we open entry point at Gelephu, there are lots of people from Assam and Guwahati who wants to come but are not able to because of so many reasons. I feel that opening of entry point for regional tourists will not have negative impact and if there is more negative impact the government can always disallow it.”
“But in order to implement, it will take time because there are so many aspects the government need to work on before opening entry point for regional tourist,” Lyonpo said.
Home Minister, Lyonpo Sherab Gyeltshen said, “The motion to open entry points to regional tourists was moved by DPT and I am sure that DPT might have studied the implications of it before presenting the motion to the parliament.”
“When we said that we will open entry points there are lots of things that we need to examine and we can’t just restrict the entry of tourists from other country and demand at the same time that we should be allowed to travel their country without any restrictions,” said the home minister, echoing the Prime Minister.
He said, “When we said that we will allow entries of regional tourists into Bhutan there are lots of things we need to examine, its implication on the economy and other security threats. So, before implementing it, we need to carry out several studies and research.”
On security front, Lyonpo said, “Of course there are concerns but we should also look into other things. If we restrict everything because it poses a risk to our security, how can the country develop? Country’s security is important but at the same we should also ensure that money comes in if we are to make sure that individual security and well being is also taken care of.”
Lyonpo said, “Opening of entry point is like building a house, while building a house, even though we have approval to build a house we need to look into several aspects and likewise when we’re opening entry points there are many angles to take into consideration.”