A good time to reflect on our tourism policy

By this time, thousands of tourists have visited Bhutan last year while several more were on their way to make the most of the fine spring weather.

Spring is the peak tourist season. In 2019, more than 7,000 tourists were in the country in March. This March, the month we detected the first coronavirus victim, there were only about 1,800. Between mid January and mid March, nearly 2,000 tourists cancelled their visas, according to tourism council’s record. The last tourist left on March 24.

Experts are warning that the impact of Covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, on the tourism and travel sectors, the worst affected globally, is not going to go away soon. Even from an ordinary perspective, it is going to be a long time before we see tourists or the hotels go up and running.

The impact is terrible. There are about 50,000 people directly or indirectly affected. Hoteliers, tour operators, guides and homestays are suddenly finding a lot of time without having to cater to tourists.

Led by the Tourism Council of Bhutan, those in the sector had been one of the earliest to come together and discuss managing the crisis and mitigating the impact. In fact, since January, as tour operators saw more visa cancellation and hoteliers got calls cancelling reservations, one after another, they got together to face the collateral damage Covid-19 brought along.

A lot of activities are planned to engage people in the sector. Some are into agriculture, some into volunteerism while some received relief kidu. But all this is short term. We cannot see many guides becoming farmers. Farming needs more than just interests or incentives.

The quiet period Covid-19 created is an opportunity to look at longer terms plans for the tourism sector. The sector that earns the highest foreign currency has been under the radar long before the pandemic. In fact, the need for a tourism policy dominated discussion in the winter session of the Parliament.

It is learnt that a tourism stimulus package is under discussion with projects planned to the tune of Nu 220 million.  Projects include infrastructure and product development, reskilling and training, survey and studies and waste management. Even before the projects are finalised or the plans went public, there are disagreements.

Many are questioning the viability and the lack of longer-term benefits to the sector and other beneficiaries. The question arises when Nu 24M is budgeted to create 80 jobs by engaging them in surveys and studies. If the study could lead to a sustainable tourism policy, it could be justified, but at the moment, the focus is on keeping people engaged and paid.

Critics are pointing out that projects planned are again focused on the top five dzongkhags that is already congested with tourists. Building infrastructure in the plan is not about creating new trekking routes in the interior, for instance, but constructing four restrooms and site development at Taktsang.

There are so many issues in the tourism and hotel industry from undercutting to cutting corners and even fronting. Reskilling guides and hotel staff could improve the image and gain the confidence of tourists.

Just before Covid-19 put a stop to tourism, the biggest complaint was overcrowding and Bhutan losing exclusivity. Eastern and southern Bhutan is still waiting for benefits from tourism. Are we relooking at our policies? If there is a plan and money to reskill a craftsman, it should benefit the Shazops in Yangtse or basket weavers of Kheng, not the handicraft vendor at the crafts bazaar in Thimphu.

This is an opportune time to relook into these issues.  If ever, normalcy returns, the first tourists would be from the region. We have approved the tourism sustainable development fee (SDF). Have we thought about how to go about it? Where to use it and how to use it?

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