Too much sound had been made! The first and the loudest was during the 10th Session of the 2nd Parliament of Bhutan when the House (National Assembly) decided to “exempt the levy of daily tariff of US$ 65 (Sustainable Development Fee) from the international tourists visiting eastern Bhutan to provide equal regional development, streamline and improve tourism in the eastern Dzongkhags.”
Two years hence, during the 3rdSession of the Parliament in 2019, a Member of Parliament “moved the motion to institute special and targeted measures to promote tourism for balanced regional development,” as posted on the National Assembly of Bhutan’s official website on January 18.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan proposed a flagship program in five identified eastern districts, which was then approved by the Royal Government as reported by the Bhutan Broadcasting Service on April 24. The flagship program was, “to promote a balanced tourism in the country and develop tourism sector in the Eastern districts.”
Unfortunately, there is a huge stumbling block in this great move and nothing concrete is visible ever.
This month, 14 tourists of various nationalities with different influential background and with huge future potential of reference for Bhutan tourism visited Bhutan. For some of them it was their second visit to Bhutan. Their schedule: a cross country cultural tour starting from Paro, visit the western, central and the remote eastern parts, experience authentic and unique culture for 14 days and exit Bhutan via Samdrupjongkhar onto to Guwahati Airport in India and then fly home.
Everything was set and all documents ready except that they needed an Indian Transit Visa, which could be applied for at the Indian Embassy in Jungshina, Thimphu by filling out the application forms and physically visiting the Embassy for Bio Metrics purposes. With this visa, the visiting tourists could exit from Samdrupjongkhar onto to their destination via Guwahati, India and was a usual practice with us for the last seven years.
The team with their respective tour guides arrived at 9:30am at the Indian embassy in Junshina ready to do the needful and carry on with their sightseeing. But after an exasperating morning and afternoon and to our utter disbelief, none of them could move one step ahead in processing the transit visa. This was something unusual.
One day had elapsed; anger and dissatisfaction amongst our guests had started steaming and one of them even questioned the procedural lapses and demanded an immediate step to move further. Their plan had been fixed, connecting flights from Guwahati to Kolkata to Bangkok had been booked and paid in full, and all rooms and reservations already paid for too. To experience eastern Bhutan was their focus and bookings done accordingly.
I went to the Indian Embassy to make another request and to get a clear picture on the visa processes. And this is the story:
1. The officers of the Indian Embassy Visa Department specifically mentioned that there are only two entry and exit points for Bhutan from India viz Paro International Airport and Phuntsholing (border town of Bhutan) by land in West Bengal, India. Apart from these two immigration centers there are no other immigration entries whatsoever. All other entries are illegal and liable for a fine of USD 400 per head and possible few days of detention.
2. This means, no tourist irrespective of the nationality, can enter or exit India from Bhutan or from Bhutan to India other than Jaigoan by land and Paro by air.
3. Which means my guests now in order to catch their flight in Guwahati, India, keen to discover eastern part of Bhutan will have to drive all the way from Samdrupjongkhar to Phuentsholing which is literally the whole length of the East – West lateral highway, exit through Jaigoan and again drive back on the Indian highway to Guwahati. The rerouting of this journey adds about 1,000 plus kilometers in total.
4. The other choice left was to continue with the sightseeing and drive back from wherever convenient and leave alone the eastern part of Bhutan. So then, it is not because of lack of “other factors such as poor road conditions, limited safety while travelling and lack of diversity of cuisine”as reported in the National Assembly but because of no entry or exit possibility for Bhutan visitors from the Indian border in the east.
5. I even talked to Tourism Council of Bhutan and unfortunately even the apex body as the council is not aware of such issue which means just like us, Tourism Council who issues visas to all tour operators in Bhutan with Samdrupjongkhar exit was assumed legal, no issue and as a matter of fact a normal practice.
Whilst our Government and relevant Tourism Offices were busy promoting the eastern part of Bhutan for the so called noble initiative of “balance regional development”will this issue stand as a most stubborn stumbling block on the way? Did we fail to see the elephant in the room!
Amiable success had reached between relevant stakeholders to promote eastern part of Bhutan and bring about regional balanced development. The Tourism Council of Bhutan have been burning mid night oil to meet the intense expectations of the government and the public. There is enthusiasm among stakeholders, tour operators, and policy makers to bring this change in the country. Limited resources have been spent or allocated to spend by the government, irreversible human resources were involved or deployed and right thoughts put forward.
But the looming question is, do we see a light at the end of the tunnel?
If not then let us still dream on, after all, at least the sound has been made and true to the proverbial saying there was only sound and no fury!
Bhutan Swallowtail Tours and Travels,
Email : firstname.lastname@example.org