The government’s Tourism Flagship project which had received in-principal approval from the cabinet in March 2019 had Gasa from the West, Dagana from the south, Lhuntse from the east and Zhemgang from the center as the four focus Dzongkhags that would be prioritized for tourism development.
The Dzongkhags fit the bill of being both poor but also having tourism potential.
This was the status even until the recent Parliament session where an additional Nu 11 mn was allocated for Zhemgang and the budget was passed as such.
However, in what seems to be a very recent turnaround, the Foreign Minister Lyonpo Tandin Dorji, who is also the Chairman of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, revealed in Parliament that Zhemgang has been replaced by Sarpang.
This surprise decision led to the Opposition Leader Dr Pema Gyamtsho questioning the government’s move.
As people found out about the decision, many Zhemgang residents came one social media to question the decision.
Panbang MP Dorji Wangdi in response to a question from the paper said that the government has already passed the budget and now it cannot go back at least for this financial year.
He said that the government may have the authority for the next year but this year the budget stands passed.
Meanwhile Lyonpo Tandin Dorji said that he has asked his officials to look at it to see if the Nu 11 mn budget from Zhemgang can be re-appropriated. He said that if it cannot be re-appropriated then they would bring work to a standstill on the Nu 11 mn activities in Zhemgang apart from the normal ones and wait till next year and then give the additional Nu 11 mn to Sarpang.
Lyonpo said that Zhemgang had to be replaced by Sarpang after the Opposition party brought in a motion in the National Assembly to re-open the southern border entry points for tourists.
He said that there is no budget for that and so he is re-appropriating it for Gelephu.
The minister said that the other logic is that when they looked at tourist arrivals Zhemgang was doing far better and there was very less tourist arrival Sarpang.
However, the 2018 tourism figures show that while Zhemgang got 332 tourists in 2018 it is not much better than Sarpang which got 231 tourists.
This is compared to Paro which got 62,781 tourists or Punakha which got 53,555 tourists in the same period.
In response to allegations that the DNT government had pulled this move on political grounds since Zhemgang has two DPT MPs and Sarpang has two DNT MPs, Lyonpo Tandin said that the first two governments had two ministers from Zhemgang.
He asked why they had not been able to do much for the development of Zhemgang in terms of colleges or roads and other issues now being raised. The minister said that the DNT Manifesto did not promise that Zhemgang would become a focus Dzongkhag or that other major activities would happen.
He said that they now cannot put the onus of the development of Zhemgang just on DNT as this is the third government.
On the issue of regional balance in terms of Zhemgang, Lyonpo said that officially there is no term called the south and Bhutan is recognized as having a west, center and east.
He claimed that Sarpang geographically falls more in the center and it is the entry point to Zhemgang, Bumthang and Trongsa.
The foreign minister said that Sarpang has a lot of land which can be developed and it already has some infrastructure like an airport for access and a small town.
Zhemgang as per the last poverty survey of the National Statistics Bureau in 2017 has the second highest proportion of poor households just behind Dagana and it is also one of the five poorest Dzongkhags in Bhutan.
Here, Lyonpo Tandin said that in terms of tackling poverty the aim is not to bring tourists all over Bhutan but to use the money from tourism and send it too poor Dzongkhags. He said that tourism is not a solution to poverty as the tourists would go to only a certain area which is also the case in his own constituency in Punakha or even in Paro, which has pockets of poverty.
Lyonpo said that other tourism activities and development would still go on like the Panbang river rafting or the Trong heritage village as part of the tourism package.
The Nu 1.5 bn tourism flagship program will be giving Nu 70 mn to each of the four Dzongkhags for a period of four years coming to Nu 280 mn combined for all four.
These four Dzongkhags will be classified by the TCB as ‘new destinations’ and also get other administrative support, marketing support to promote them; and other facilities
Rest of the 16 Dzongkhags will get Nu 25 mn each for four years coming to Nu 400 mn.
The balance 820 mn will be spent on cross cutting themes like rest rooms, site management for heritage tourism sites and other activities.
Money from this Nu 820 mn will also be used in the four new destination Dzongkhags in addition to other Dzongkhags.
Meanwhile, the debate around the removal of Zhemgang from the tourism list has also lead to a larger debate on the treatment meted out to Zhemgang.
Commenting on a Facebook post the former MoEA minister and Bardo-Trong MP Lekey Dorji asked why several activities for Zhemgang started by the then PDP government or put in the draft 12th plan was not there. He said, “We actually started the road construction to connect Mongar from both Khomshar and Wangama sides but it now appears that the road has been left off the 12FYP. We built farm road from Shingkhar to Tholeg with the intention to join Ura in Bumthang but that too seems not budgeted in the 12FYP.”
He said the previous government pushed and the NA resolved to build a degree college in Zhemgang and that too seems in limbo right now.
“The previous government also built a Nu 240 mn bridge over Mangdechu in Rindibe and many preconstruction works for 770 MW Chamkharchu hydropower project were complete but the government abruptly announced that the project will be shelved for now,” said Lekey.
While the former minister may say this, the Hydropower Committee set up by the former government had recommended in its report to shelve this project to keep Chamkarchu free of any projects for now and as a way to decelerate and prioritize hydro projects.
“During my tenure as the MP, we emphasized building roads, electricity, telephone access, other infrastructure but we are still behind many other Dzongkhags,” said Lekey.
He said the previous government also bought the land and infrastructure of Prince Namgyel Wangchuck Academy in Tagma, owned by the previous MP of Zhemgang Tshering Dorji, for starting a vocational education institute but the last he heard is that the government may build one elsewhere instead of Zhemgang.
He said, “Zhemgang Dzong had sustained damages during the most recent earthquake and the 12FYP was to see the construction of a new Dzong for Khenrig Namsum but this activity does not seem to be budgeted either.”
The former minister Lekey said that in terms of tourism development in Zhemgang it was to be a major recipient of the tourism flagship project in the 12 FYP. An eco-trails route had been surveyed from Ura to Shingkhar and preliminary works had started, a guesthouse had been built in Dunmang Tshachhu.
He said unique local festivals like Kharpu, Chothpa, Kath and others all over the villages of Kheng were prepared to be opened to tourists; many village houses hoped to be upgraded to host visitors; River Guides of Panbang activated many new initiatives with TCB and Bhutan Foundation support in Panbang and Manas area; Buli was gearing up for major tourism activities; bird festival in Tingtibe was becoming popular; and there was a natural orchidium in Bermo near Tingtibe.
The Opposition MPs from Zhemgang surprisingly chose not to criticize the government for the loss of opportunities for Zhemgang from the draft 12th plan of the previous government but instead mainly highlighted what is there now.
The MP from Bardo-Trong, Gyambo Tshering said that Zhemgang has a Nu 317.78 mn budget for this financial year which is more than Wangdue Phodrang at Nu 288.150 mn. He said that a lot of activities are happening and there are not much cancellations.
While Zhemgang got Nu 317.78 mn budget, it is only the seventh highest and that too because it is one of the poorest Dzongkhags as the GNHC has an automatic formula to allocate resources to Dzongkhags depending on the poverty level and other major issues in a Dzongkhag.
MP Dorji Wangdi also said that Zhemgang does have a lot of activities and not many have been cancelled. He said that funds had been allocated for the repair of the Zhemgang Dzong which was not budgeted in the 12th plan.