The National Assembly (NA) through majority show of hands repealed Section 8 on the Exemption of Tourism Levy and deciding to levy the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) in all 20 dzongkhags.
During the deliberation, the House felt that exemption of Tourism Levy for the listed dzongkhags would not benefit in promoting tourism in those dzongkhags.
NA supported the recommendation on the roles and responsibilities of the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) to submit a bi-annual report on the tourism levy to the Ministry of Finance (MoF), and the Parliament. The Bill will now be known as Tourism Levy Bill of Bhutan 2020
NA supported the amendment with 33 Yes and 7 Abstaining out of 40 Members present and voting.
Foreign Minister and Chairman of TCB, Dr Tandi Dorji, said that the government and TCB proposed to align the tourism policy with the national policy of ‘High Value Low Volume’. The government recently drafted a new tourism policy that puts ‘high value low volume’ as the center point. Though there is one policy but it was being implemented in two ways, one for regional tourists and the international tourists. So, the government’s whole idea was to align that and make it a one policy that it applies to all tourists.
The foreign minister said most of the regional tourists coming in did not have to pay SDF and at the same time they were not getting the services that the international tourists were getting, such as insuring that there is a proper guide, cultural insensitivity are not created, road traffic accidents are not created and so on. “Since they were exempted, we saw a lot of problems,” he added.
So the government proposed a nominal fee of Nu 1,200 knowing that the regional tourists are not at par with the international tourists in terms of purchasing power. But at the same time the monument fee was removed.
The government had initially decided to keep the exemption in place for six eastern dzongkhags, proposing that the exemption will apply to all the tourists. However, the good governance committee of the National Assembly proposed five more dzongkhags taking it to 11 Dzongkhags. This earlier version of the Bill was unanimously passed by the House.
“I proposed to exempt the levy on at least six dzongkhags, if not to 11 dzongkhags because I wanted to incentivize tourists to visit these dzongkhags,” Lyonpo Dr Tandi Dorji said.
The National Council added four more dzongkhags to the Tourism Levy Bill taking the number to 15 Dzongkhags.
Lyonpo said the number of tourists coming to those four dzongkhags is quite high.
“The whole purpose of the SDF is defeated if the government includes all the 15 dzongkhags,” said Lyonpo, believing that the members of NA and NC adding additional dzongkhags is driven by individual interests.
However, members of NA debated on the actual reason for exemptions and members said the exemptions in the past has never benefited the Dzongkhags. Therefore, the majority of the House felt that it is better to equalize all dzongkhags and remove the exemptions. If not, some will be happy and some will not.
Lyonpo said the aim is to create a regional balance, and ensure benefits of tourism must come to all people. “Therefore, we must look at other ways of bringing tourists to those place,” he added.
Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering supported the House that all 20 dzongkhags should be levied SDF and this will make work easier for everyone.
Athang Thedtsho MP Kinley Wangchuk who voted for levying Nu 1,200 in all 20 dzongkhags said the existing practice where tourists need not have pay SDF in eastern dzongkhag did not improve tourism in these Dzongkhags in all these years. He felt that this will lead to further discrimination instead. He said when one dzongkhag gets exemption and others get levied, it is unfair.
Similarly, Khamaed-Lunana MP Yeshey Dem wished to remove the exemption on tourism levy. She expressed that it was disheartening when NC added four more dzongkhags including Gasa. She said Gasa has not reach to a point where it should be given for free. She requested the House to remove Gasa from the exemption list.
She also said that Gasa needs tourists who can pay, not someone who comes for free. Bhutan is known internationally for its unique culture and there is no need to exempt any dzongkhag on paying tourism levy, she pointed out.
Opposition Leader (OL) Pema Gyamtsho (PhD) said exemption from paying SDF has never benefitted the six eastern dzongkhags, as some of the dzongkhags receive no tourists till date and in some the number of tourists has reduced.
“If exemptions are given in those 15 dzongkhags, the tourist might think that the places are not so special, and later in future, it will be difficult to maintain or encourage tourists to visit those places,” said OL.
OL requested the House to do away with the exemption and levy SDF in all 20 dzongkhags and maintain Bhutan as number one tourist destination.
Meanwhile, the Tourism Levy Bill of Bhutan 2020 is expected to be implemented starting July this year.