Undercutting, low occupancy, regulations, waste and planes come up in tourism conference

During the National Tourism Conference, various stakeholders of the tourism sector like Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO), Hotel  and Restaurant Association of Bhutan (HRAB), Guide Association of Bhutan (GAB), Civil Society of Bhutan (CSO) and Non Government Organizations (NGO) submitted to the Tourism Council of Bhutan that lack of services, tourism policies, undercutting, low occupancy, lack of sanitation and waste management are some of the major issues faced by various stakeholders in the tourism industry.

About more than 200 people gathered at the Royal Institute for Tourism and Hospitality’s (RITH) conference room to attend the two-day National Tourism Conference (NTC) which was the first of its kind organized by the TCB to ‘take tourism to the top’.

The Prime Minister Lyonchhen (Dr) Lotay Tshering during the conference said, “This government is committed to take tourism to the top and we have started working on it. We have a flagship program on tourism in the 12th Five Year Plan which will help us see where we are lacking, how we can balance the regional development and seasonal spread of tourism, how all the agencies are benefitted and how our economy is benefited from tourism as we cannot always rely on hydro power, because we all know how susceptible it can be.”

“Tourism will get all the attention in next five years and with the change in the leadership of TCB and change in the governance, tourism should receive what it deserves”, he added.

The Chairman of ABTO, Rinzin Ongdra said, “With Tourism being the service industry, we need to qualify the service provider and one of the issues we need to discuss is how do we all solve this problem together. One of the most important constraints we have is the airline, so we should be talking on increasing the number of flights or we should have a third operator introduced in the country.”

He said the capacity of Paro International Airport should be increased from 24 flights to 50 flights but even 50 flights would only bring in less than half a million tourists and in order to bring more tourists there is a need to have a second international airport immediately.

“In order to take tourism to the top, air connectivity is very important,” he added.

He said that apart from air services- road services and facilities are very important as most tourists spent most of their time during their stay in the vehicle.

“We get one bus every five years and every tour operator gets only one bus and this is unfair for larger tour operators who bring in more tourists and requires more buses. So we should look into changing the number of buses tour operators can bring in,” he said.

Many hoteliers shared that low occupancy is the main issue with hotels in Bhutan. They said that the increasing number of tourist is not alarming but hotels having difficulty in filling up rooms is more worrying.

They shared that than 50 per cent of the rooms that hoteliers provide is left unfilled and that low occupancy is not from increasing number of hotels coming in but because of increasing regulation from TCB to regulate regional tourists.

The President of HRAB Thinley Palden Dorji said, “The role of private sector in tourism industry is immense but if it is not supported and guided by relevant stakeholders and agencies then this is where the real obstacle lies. The number of tourist visiting Bhutan are increasing and at one point of time we were worried that lot of tourists are coming and we should be doing something. On the other hand, there are reports in newspapers and social media regarding hotels finding it difficult to fill up the room.”

“On the one hand we are told that there are increasing numbers of tourist and there is need to regulate it and on the other hand, there are reports on hotels finding it difficult to sell their rooms. So I would like to say, one of the major concerns is channelizing tourists in a proper manner,” he added.

He brought up regulatory issues imposed in so many places. He said there is lack of skilled man power in the industry but when hotels try to bring in skilled people from other countries, there are restictive regulations.

Tour operators expressed that certain regulation and policies imposed by the tourism council is a challenge for them. In order to regulate the number of regional tourists, various regulations are placed like entry fees for visiting religious sites, not allowing rafting in various places. Tour operators pleaded with TCB to remove them.

Tour operators also said, the practice of undercutting is also one of the biggest concerns of tourism industry and if it is not resolved, the industry can never attain its potential to generate revenue.

They said that as long as undercutting is there, Bhutan cannot take tourism to the top or make tourism the highest revenue earning sector in the country.

“For a country like ours, high value has always been in term of number of tourists but not in terms of revenue,” an operator said.

GAB’s chairperson Garab Dorji said, “The biggest challenges for the guide is that guides in Bhutan are paid very low salaries and there are incidences where guides have to spend the night in car and buses and there are also incidences where 6 to 7 guides spend the night together in one room because they don’t have enough money or there is no empty room.  If we want to take tourism to top, we need to respect the guide and work together to address the issue they face”.

Other stakeholders like NGO and CSOs like Bhutan Toilet Organizations and Royal Society for Protection of nature emphasized on the need to improve sanitation facilities and manage waste as waste management is one major impact of tourism.

Director of TCB, Dorji Dhradhul said, “A total of 274,097 tourists visited Bhutan in 2018 with the growth rate of 7.61 per cent against 2017. There were 63,367 international tourists with growth rate of 1.76 per cent and 202,290 regional tourists with the growth rate of 10.37 per cent”.

The Director said, “In case of tourism revenue, we generated Nu 1.75 billion in 2018 with the growth rate of 7.02 per and we are expecting to increase revenue to Nu 5.48 billion in 2023”.

He said, that in order to increase contribution of tourism to national economy and rural livelihood, balanced regional development and seasonal spread of tourism and enhance visitor’s experience of Bhutan as exclusive destination, TCB has chosen five tourism focus dzongkhags like Lhuentse, Zhemgang, Dagana, Gasa and Samtse.

TCB will initiate various projects like Adventure sports and tours, tourist amenities, Highland Festival in East, water based recreational activity and waste management among others.

TCB will also come up with policy and regulation and frameworks as recommended by relevant stakeholders.

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