Tshering Palden 

The tourism sector hogged much of the headlines in the year of the Hog. 

A regional tourist Indian atop a choeten at Dochula, mandatory drug tests for tour guides, the COVID-19 impact on tourism, Zhemgang dropping off the priority list, and sustainable development fee for regional tourists grabbed a lot of headlines. 

The sector underwent many bittersweet moments as the Tourism Board and the Council carried out consultations to draft its first written policy and the rules and regulations for regional tourists and numerous other forums of major import. 

The sector was wandering aimlessly without a proper policy and needed to do some soul searching.  Criticisms and concerns heaped on the need to manage regional tourists. Many critics including those within the industry called for policy and an Act to set the country’s cash cow on to the right path.  

One of the impediments for the TCB’s was that it could not meet and decide on issues as its Chairperson, the Prime Minister was unavailable for meetings. One time it met only two times in a year and most times the important meetings were deferred. This meant many important decisions were simply delayed and in some cases never taken. 

The foreign minister taking over the chairmanship of the Tourism Council was an important welcome reform for the sector as it brought down one of the most hurdles. 

The sector also underwent some testing times as numerous major issues including the prolonged debate on regional tourism management saw prime stakeholders on different sides of the fence. There was entrenched fear that a prominent group might hold the much-needed policy to ransom to the extent that the foreign minister was asked in one of the public forums if the government was bending under pressure from one industry. 

The Regional Tourism Levy Bill that would levy SDF on tourists from Bangladesh, India, and the Maldives was finally tabled but not without drama and confusion. The National Assembly granted sustainable development fee exemption to 11 dzongkhags and then the National Council recommended to add four more dzongkhags to the exemption list. 

When the NA redeliberated the Bill with the recommendations from the NC, the TCB chairperson and the Prime Minister landed on different poles. The former besieging the floor to stick with its decision on the 11 dzongkhags and the latter proposing to do away with it altogether. The Opposition Leader backed the Prime Minister and the majority of the members sided with the two leaders. The House finally overturned its decision. 

The tourism policy is also submitted to the Cabinet, which is soon to be approved. 

The Hog year saw the sector undergo a lot of metamorphoses but only the year of the Male Iron Rat year will show how the sector comes through as a colourful butterfly or a dead caterpillar. 

The TCB also held the first mega-conference themed Taking Tourism to the Top spearheaded by its new Director-General Dorji Dhradhul. The stakeholders laid bared many of the mounting issues looming under the surface impeding the development of the sector. 

The conference also proposed new ideas such as posting guides at hotspots, need to use more platforms to promote the country as an exclusive destination and engaging the communities in the development of tourism. 

The sector is still mired in undercutting, lack of infrastructure, proper monitoring, and tourism management at many of the popular hotspots. Much is to be done. 

The Hog year ended with poor business with all industries getting adversely affected by the COVID-19. The Lonely Planet declared the country as the top country to visit in 2020, a major recognition. But will it suffice to see through the downturn in the business from the virus? Only time will tell.