The decision to replace Zhemgang with Sarpang under the tourism flagship programme was not politically driven, clarified the government.

In response to the opposition party’s allegations, foreign minister, Dr Tandi Dorji during a press conference on Saturday, July 6, said that the decision was never along political lines.

Lyonpo said that had there been a political angle, the government would not have put Zhemgang as a focus dzongkhag in the beginning.

Politically, he said there are only regions of East, Central and West. “So when we selected the districts, ideally, we should have taken only three districts representing the three regions,” said the minster. “But we took the fourth district in consideration of huge population in the southern districts.”

The government identified four dzongkhags –Dagana, Gasa, Lhuentse and Zhemgang as focused dzongkhags under the tourism flagship programme.

Dr Tandi Dorji said that the Opposition has questioned the legality to remove a decision, which has been already passed by the parliament.

“Normally they (Opposition) are experts in quoting Acts and articles,” he said, adding that this time the Opposition has quoted none. He said that the Constitution, National Assembly Act and the Public Finance Act clearly give full authority to the executive to decide on plans and programmes of the country. 

As for the restrictions, lyonpo said that only if a law is passed by the parliament, the executive has no authority to overrule any provisions of the law. “The flagship programme that has been passed is a policy decision and the executive has the full authority.”

On the decision to drop Zhemgang, Dr Tandi Dorji said the Opposition in the last parliament session clamoured about opening all the southern borders to tourists. At that time, the government had said there was inadequate infrastructure and lack of systems to monitor, besides the security issues it could pose, he added. Lyonpo is the chairman of the Tourism Council of Bhutan.

“Alongside, we relooked at the strategy. They were right. We found out that Sarpang has greatest opportunity of becoming the gateway for Bhutan, similar to what Phuentsholing does today.”

He said that Gelephu has an airport, which could be further developed. Immigration and custom check points had to be improved. “While Sarpang becomes the gateway, beneficiary districts would be Tsirang, Zhemgang, Trongsa and beyond.”

As per the reports with the Bhutan Tourism Monitor, the minister said that Sarpang received only 231 tourists in 2018, one of the lowest in the country. Zhemgang on the other hand received 332. In terms of bed-nights, Zhemgang received 931 tourists while Sarpang received 309.

Lyonpo said Zhemgang have a proposed target to achieve 1,250 tourists bed-nights. “They already have 931 and we just have increase by another 300-400, its easily achievable,” he said. “We don’t need to have a separate tourism flagship programme for that.”


Zhemgang won’t be neglected

Dr Tandi Dorji said that Zhemgang would continue to receive additional attention as one of the five project based dzongkhags.

He said that given its poverty ranking, Zhemgang has always been considered for development by the government. “A lot needs to be done. That is why, in the 12th Plan, Zhemgang (excluding budget for gewogs) has one of the highest allocation of Nu 1.003 billion, where as Sarpang has only Nu 951 million,” he said.  “We have purely done what we intend to do, that is to narrow the gap. How can the Opposition accuse us of leaving behind Zhemgang?”

The minister went on to say that the Opposition know only how to fuel people’s sentiments. “Their basic survival as a political party is based on this and without it they will not get the support they have,” he said.

He said that representatives of Zhemgang in the parliament constantly claim to have not received anything so far. A college, Chamkharchhu project and now they claim that the tourism budget has also be robbed off them, added the minster.

“Over the years, two ministers have come from Zhemgang. One is serving his third term as MP. What have they been doing?” he said. “He is ineffective, basically. The people of Zhemgang should seriously think about changing their MP if he continues to claim nothing is happening. This person in three elections has learnt how to divide and fuel the sentiments of the public.”

The minister reassured the people of Zhemgang that there would be developmental activities in the dzongkhag. “At the end of the five years, if the people of Zhemgang feel that they have been left out, I would take the responsibility as the chairman of the Tourism Council of Bhutan.”

However, he said if the people of Zhemgang are to be benefited, he would like to request the people of Zhemgang to rethink about the MPs they are electing.

Meanwhile, an approval letter, with a wrong date, from the Cabinet to the Gross National Happiness Commission approving the inclusion of Sarpang as one of the four focused dzongkhags under the tourism development flagship programme is being circulated on social media. 

Younten Tshedup