Yearender | Tourism: Increasing regional tourists and the proposed closure of Taktshang monastery were some of the major issues the tourism sector faced during the fire Monkey year.

The Paro Dzongkhag Tshogdu endorsing the closure of Taktshang monastery on Tuesdays, a tourist hotspot and a must visit site for all tourists, didn’t go down well among tourism stakeholders. The dzongkhag administration submitted the proposal stating that cleaning and repair or renovation works would be done on Tuesdays, starting from January 1, 2016.

However, following reservations from the tourism sector, the proposed closure was deferred to April 1. Another deferment followed when the home ministry decided to put up the issue to the Cabinet, as it was expected that the closure would have an impact at the national level. The issue was resolved with it being decided that the monastery would remain open on all days until 3pm.

The Bhutan-Japan friendship year marked the beginning of the Monkey year, which also was met with much scepticism from tour operators. The offer was introduced to commemorate 30 years of close diplomatic ties between the two countries. As part of the offer, Japanese tourists visiting Bhutan were not required to pay the mandatory minimum daily package rate of USD 200 a person.

While the offer was expected to benefit the industry during the lean season months, many tour operators criticised the intention of such offers that started with the Bhutan-Thailand friendship offer in 2014. Tour operators reasoned that they were not consulted.

Despite such friendship offers, growth of international tourists from other source markets remained slow while rising numbers of regional tourists was seen as a threat to the high-value, low-impact tourism policy. The policy applies only to US dollar-paying or international tourists.

In absence of a policy to govern regional tourists, tourism stakeholders once again highlighted the need for a policy to govern regional tourists for better management and to offer them a meaningful trip. Visitors from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives are referred to as regional tourists. Records indicate a steady increase in regional tourists over the years.

Even as the industry moved forward, issues such as hotel occupancy, equal spread of tourism benefits, seasonality and alleged undercutting practices continued to plague stakeholders. The industry has been grappling with these issues for more than four decades and it was no different during the Monkey year.

The plight of guides given the seasonality issue also popped up during the same year. There are more than 2,300 guides, 1,600 tour operators and 123 tourist standard hotels in the country, records show.

Despite being promoted as a high-end destination, the country has recorded more regional tourists than dollar-paying tourists. Dollar-paying tourists has dropped since 2015 and is expected to drop further, according to stakeholders.

Unlike international tourists, regional tourists are exempt from paying the minimum daily tariff of USD 250 and 200 for the peak and lean seasons. They also do not require visas to enter the country and process their entry and route permits from the immigration department upon arrival.

In all, the fire Monkey year didn’t treat the industry differently from the previous years.

Kinga Dema