Digitalising the process would save time and resources at the Phuentsholing border 

Tourism: Regional tourists will be able to process tourist permit online if the government agrees to the request from the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO).

The ABTO recently wrote to the government to make the service online, and the association is hopeful of a positive response. “We are yet to hear from the government,” ABTO’s Executive Director Sonam Dorji said.

Regional tourists coming in by road today need to show up in person at the border check points to process their tourist permit which will be valid for Thimphu and Paro dzongkhags only. If they plan to visit other dzongkhags, they need another permit from Thimphu.

Regional tourists coming in by air do not need to process the permit for Paro and Thimphu dzongkhags like those coming by land. However, they also need to avail another permit from Thimphu if they wish to visit dzongkhags besides Paro and Thimphu.

“So far, only dollar paying tourists can apply for permit online,” Sonam Dorji said. “It takes time for regional tourists to process permit at the Phuentsholing international border.”

Last year about 85,000 of the total 133,000 tourist arrivals were regional tourists, out of which 68,000 were from India. Regional tourists comprise tourists from India, Maldives and Bangladesh and officials argue that it has become important to transfer the issuance of the permit online.

Tour operators believe that the proposed system would not only reduce hassle for regional tourists but also help formalise the informal tourism in the country. Those tourists coming in on their own without routing through tour agents are called informal tourists.

Sharing his personal view, home minister Dawa Gyaltshen said he was positive about the idea although the government is yet to reach a consensus. “In this era of ICT, I think we need to do that in future,” lyonpo said, adding that the cabinet hasn’t been able to sit in the recent weeks.

Indian tour operators also raised the issue when they recently attended the Indo-Bhutan tourism conclave in Thimphu. They said it was a hassle for regional tourists to process the permit, which they said takes time.

An Indian tour operator from West Bengal who attended the conclave said having to wait for hours at the border check point to avail permit was a big problem for regional tourists. “I have been visiting Bhutan for quite sometime and I had to wait for four hours to avail my permit to Bhutan,” he said

“We have to come in person, which is a big hindrance for the growth of Bhutanese tourism industry itself,” he said. If tourists can book permits online, he said they could do that in advance and make a secured trip to Bhutan.

Some tourism officials said that the introduction of the proposed system would contribute in bringing regional tourists during off-season. Bhutanese tourism being seasonal in nature is the main constraint the industry is facing today, according to officials.

Indian tour operator Rajat Goswami said services such as issuance of permits should be made easier. He said regional tourists are equally important for Bhutan, as are dollar-paying tourists.

“We give business when Bhutan has nothing. It’s not alternative business,” he said.

Indian tour agents said they also receive late responses from their Bhutanese counterparts. “People these days have no patience,” he said. “But we get response from Bhutan counterparts very late,” he said.

MB Subba