Part I

In the wake of the recent spate of discussions on the possibility of revising the country’s current tourism policy (i.e. liberalizing the daily minimum tourist tariff), many of us are left anxious and worried. Assuming that the Parliament endorses the recommendations, it’s disconcerting to even imagine the ramifications of sudden influx of tourists in the country.

It would open the floodgates for mass tourism and subject the country to the onslaught of its harsh influences, even with the government royalty intact. And we should know that we will be no match for our neighbours if we play the mass tourism game.

Even as we wonder what transpired the revision of tourism policy, we learn that, according to National Council’s Economic Affairs Committee, the current tourism policy may have “outlived” its purpose. This comes as a slap in the face, knowing all well the current policy’s decades of proven success as the bedrock of the tourism industry in the country. The committee also felt that the government’s grip on tourism needed to be loosened. The year-long study thus ensued and policy recommendations made in an attempt to make it more relevant and efficient.

Notwithstanding the good intentions, it appears that the committee’s justification for doing away with the daily tariff (price-floor) is rather misplaced. The move is understood to be aimed at micromanaging tourism in the country when it is best left to the stakeholders. Speculations are rife that the proponents (among the stakeholders) of the policy change are bent on making it happen for reasons arising from petty grudges and envy, mostly targeted towards tour operators (TO). Some also suggest that there might be a more sinister motive behind these recommendations.

However, we must still fully understand the risk of such major policy change, keeping in mind the larger interests of the nation. The crux of the argument is that the lynchpin of the country’s sustainability as a top tourist destination is its “exclusivity,” which is largely defined by the current daily tariff policy, and it must be preserved.

We are witnessing a steady increase of both tariff paying and regional tourists. In fact, it may even be suggested that the daily minimum tariff be increased, while regulating regional tourists, so as to stay true to the “high value-low impact” policy.

Of the nine-point recommendations, the prospect of doing away with the current policy’s minimum tariff appears to be most contentious, particularly since sustainability of the tourism industry is in question.  While the benefits are obvious and have been aggressively touted by certain quarters, we have not been honest with ourselves to analyze and understand the full extent of the potential damage of such a grave move.

Yes, however efficient the current policy may have been, we must also recognize its setbacks and be willing to evolve as needed. Whether it is perceived or actual, limitations do exist with the current policy, absence of tourism Act being the main problem. Unregulated regional tourism; seasonality problems; lack of flexibility; uneven distribution of tourism benefits; and the practice of undercutting are just some of the other issues with the industry. These issues, no doubt, need attention; but tough problems demand creative solutions, and it’s not right to look for an easy way out. While a robust, but dynamic tourism bill is expected to solve most of these problems, liberalizing the daily tariff will prove to be counterproductive rendering all other recommendations meaningless.

With the move, first we set ourselves to destroy our fragile culture and then run the risk of becoming acutely dependent on the volatile tourism industry; how smart is that for a country?

It is most crucial to understand what sells Bhutan. Is our culture and traditions resilient enough to withstand changes brought about by tourism? We may have the beautiful mountains, the fanciest of hotels, and provide the best of services, but they will never be the reasons to come to Bhutan. It’s not the picturesque landscape alone that allures people. Let’s not kid ourselves; there are many beautiful places all around the world. But it is the pristine Himalayan landscape peppered with this exotic culture and the people that the discerning travelers find most intriguing. The moment we lose this allure, we drop down the list of desirable places to travel to; simply put, we lose our edge over our neighboring countries, which are less expensive and far easier to get to.

Our unique culture is our tourism mainstay. With a small population, there is bound to be cultural erosion with increasing tourism influence. Locals too would become jaded (if not tourist phobic), besides growing dependent on tourism, and then all the authentic offerings are out of the window. This alone is a good enough reason for discerning and mindful travelers to consider not traveling to Bhutan. Of course, these factors may not be as important if Bhutan were a larger country like our neighbors.

It’s an accepted fact that increase in tourism influence also encourages callous activities like sex tourism. Across the industry, we are already seeing random cases of tourists seeking sexual services. The more tourists we get, the more difficult it becomes for us to monitor such illicit behaviors.

Taxes too cannot be regulated if liberalized. The lost revenue in taxes for the government would negate financial gains.

The pressing issue is the growing unregulated regional tourism in the country. In the last two to three years, the country has seen unprecedented growth in tourist arrivals from the region, particularly from India. Not to downplay their [regional tourists] contribution to the country’s economy, but in the absence of regional tourism policy, it has resulted in regional tourists/travel groups engaging in wanton acts, often jeopardizing their own and others experience in the country. Regardless of where the tourists come from, they must be encouraged to experience and understand Bhutan for what it is, and that can be achieved only through policy intervention.

All regional tourists should sit through country orientation (covering cultural sensitivity, safety, trash issues, etc.) at the point of entrance; hire a licensed tour guide; and pay entrance fees at the dzongs for local guides are only some of the recommendations making the rounds.

As much as we want to avoid seasonality, by virtue of being situated in the Himalayas north of India, people know that summer is wet and winter is cold here. We may try, but we cannot change that fact! It’s also given that most people avoid the extreme and choose to come during Spring and Autumn.

Freeing the daily tariff all across the year will only exacerbate the problems during the traditional tourist seasons. As it is, the arrivals have only been increasing year after year (perhaps with an exception of this year, attributing to the April earthquake in Nepal, which also goes to show how volatile tourism industry is). Hotels get oversold during the period, and we have seen many festivals overrun by tourists, which is a concern for both tourists and locals alike.

Hotels have their grievances, which are partly self-inflicted, for which they call the industry sick. The problem of low occupancy rate originates from seasonality problem. It however seems necessary to have some policy intervention to even the spread of tourist arrivals in the country. As controversial as it is, perhaps, a refined version of last year’s Thai promotion can be looked into to help achieve just that.

Contributed by 

Phuntsho Norbu

Tour Operator