Govt. optimistic that 20 percent of the total tourist arrivals visit the east by 2018

Tourism: The government’s pledge to make 20 percent of the tourists visit the eastern circuit by 2018 may take a while with many tour operators not promoting the eastern circuit.

This is mainly attributed to the ongoing East-West highway widening works and the unreliable domestic airline services.

A tour operator said that the eastern region has never been a promising market, which only got worse with the unreliable domestic flights and the ongoing road widening works.

“Unless we are able to connect from Assam, India, it will be difficult because of the lack of infrastructure,” he said. “Only if tourism in Assam picks, there will be possibility for Bhutan as well.”

However, the tour operator said that with the frequent strikes and instability in Assam, it would be a far-fetched dream.

Another tour operator said that although there is 50 percent of reduction in royalty for visitors staying more than eight days in Bhutan, it was still difficult to promote the eastern region.

“Usually tourists visit for about six days during which it is impossible to include the east as part of the itinerary owing to the road condition and distance,” he said.

Some tour operators said it has become difficult to convince tourists to visit even Bumthang. “Even if we manage, tourists complain a lot when they are back,” one said. “The domestic flight to Bumthang is not reliable still.”

The eastern circuit that includes Mongar, Lhuentse, Tashiyangtse, Trashigang and Samdrupjongkhar is one of the least explored regions.

Last year, 133,480 international and regional tourists visited the country of which only 3.6 percent visited the east.

As is the trend, Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Wangduephodrang, and Bumthang continue to be the most visited destinations. These dzongkhags also recorded the largest number of bed nights by international tourists last year.

“Compared with 2013, the number of tourists increased drastically in 2014, but most visited the popular districts of Paro, Thimphu and Punakha,” Tourism Council of Bhutan’s (TCB) annual report states.

However, at the meet-the-press session yesterday lyonchoen Tshering Tobgay said the government is determined to make the eastern region a better place for tourists to visit.

While there are no changes in the daily tariff rate for tourists visiting the east, lyonchoen said it’s entirely up to the travel agencies on which places to promote.

The East-West highway, lyonchoen said would not only provide economic opportunities for people but boost tourism as well.

“The Yonphula airport would be operational by next year, which would further benefit the tourism industry,” he said.

Lyonchoen also shared that TCB is looking at ways to promote the eastern circuit. “TCB has completed a research on the eastern tradition and culture besides the treks and other tourism products,” he said. “Accordingly, TCB has also started the construction of the required amenities.”

“Looking at these developments, we are optimistic of taking 20 percent of the tourists to the east as pledged,” lyonchoen said.

Lyonchoen attributed the less number of visitors to the east to poor policies in the past and the lack of infrastructure. “Even when visiting the east, there are no proper records maintained on the number of treks, hikes and other attractions,” he said.

Uniform distribution of benefits from tourism is also one of the pledges of the government.  Besides, the government also promised to diversify tourism products to ensure regional spread and balanced seasonality growth.

While the tourism stakeholders laud the government’s initiative for better roads, they cited issues, such as lack of coordination among agencies, erratic roadblock timings, and lack of restroom facilities along the highway that made travel difficult.

The domestic flight operations were suspended in about six months after it started operations in December 2011.

While flights to Bumthang have resumed, passengers complain of the unreliable flight schedule and frequent cancellations.  Suspension of flights also affected tourist hotels in Bumthang and Trashigang, as it led to numerous cancellations.

Kinga Dema