Hoteliers in eastern Bhutan request exemption 

Nima Wangdi and Ugyen Dorji 

Sixteen hoteliers from the six eastern dzongkhags recently wrote to the Prime Minister requesting extension of exemption of the sustainable development fee (SDF) for the tourists visiting eastern Bhutan. They expressed their concerns over not receiving any tourists due to the revised SDF.

The letter, submitted on July 1, stated that the Tourism Levy Bill 2022 is good as it is aimed at addressing bottlenecks in sharing and reaping the benefits of tourism in dzongkhags beyond already tourist-rich Western dzongkhags. “However, we are concerned about the dramatic increase in the SDF from USD 65 to 200 per day.”

The letter stated that hoteliers believe it would have the most immediate negative impact for tourism recovery in east Bhutan. The decision would have more negative impact than helping them recover from the economic and livelihood hardships that the Covid-19 pandemic posed.

According to the letter, only two per cent of the total international tourists visited the six dzongkhags in eastern Bhutan in 2017. Less than 0.4 per cent of the total regional tourists visited the region in the same year. “The remote poverty-stricken eastern region has been left out.”


Past experience

Parliament passed the Tourism Levy Exemption Bill of Bhutan 2017 waiving off (SDF) of US dollar 65 per day for the international tourists visiting eastern Bhutan. The international tourists number increased to 3.6 per cent in 2018 and 3.85 per cent in 2019.

“It is clear that there will be fewer or no tourists in eastern Bhutan with the revised SDF,” the letter stated.

The hoteliers pleaded with Lyonchen for SDF exemption extension for another three years until the tourist arrival returns to normal. “This will give us time to work on strategies and plans to make eastern Bhutan the new hotspot for regional tourists from the North-East Region of India as they can now enter directly from Samdrupjongkhar.”

“We are aware and remain appreciative that the government is trying its best to boost tourism and bring economic development in Eastern Bhutan. However, the increase in the SDF for international tourists will certainly lead to a sharp drop in total tourist arrivals for the country leading to economic impact and youth unemployment issues for eastern Bhutan,”the letter stated.

A Regional Tourism Council office in Samdrup Jongkhar is one of the five points that the hoteliers have submitted to Lyonchhen. They also requested the government to explore the possibility of flying from Guwahati and Bagdora to Yonphula directly and also schedule helicopter services from Paro to Eastern Bhutan in addition to the domestic flights.

The hoteliers also requested the government to invest in identifying and diversifying tourism products and facilities in the east.

The chairman of the Eastern Dzongkhag hotel association and proprietor of Dejong hotel, Kuenga said that the equal SDF should not be applied to the Eastern and Central region. “When the SDF was waived off in the past, tourists started coming.”

He said that all the bookings done before the pandemic have been cancelled due to the revised SDF. The bad road condition and unreliable flight services are already hampering tourist arrivals in the East.

“We are hopeful that the government considers our request,” Kuenga said.

The owner of River lodge in Bumthang, Pema Dawa, during the recent PM’s visit said that there should be a SDF concession for tourists traveling beyond Pelela. He said, a three-member family coming to Bumthang would have to pay USD 600 per day and it is expensive.

“Poverty is almost unheard of in dzongkhags like Thimphu, Paro and Wangdi unlike in the Eastern and central region,” he said, adding that people in these regions should grow if we are to eradicate poverty.

Another hotelier said that higher SDF means shorter stay time for tourists. Tourists will not be able to travel to far places.

Officials from the Prime Minister’s office (PMO) said that they received the letter from the hoteliers in the East, but it is legally impossible to extend the exemption at this stage since it is an Act. “Studies were done before the Bill was put to Parliament for deliberation and it was found that not a single extra tourist had gone to the east despite the SDF exemption.”

This shows that the exemption of SDF had no impact in the east, according to the PMO. “It is not necessary that the tourist should go to the East in order to benefit the people in the East. The intention and spirit should be that the whole country benefits through the revenue generated from tourism.”