The government is mulling to impose a green tax of Nu 2,000 for every foreign vehicle entering and exiting the country carrying tourists.
The proposal, which had been worked upon in detail, need not go to the Parliament for approval. It is an executive decision, and if implemented, it would be seen as a wise and bold decision. Such a decision was wanting, especially in the minds of those in the transportation and tourism business.
The proposal coincides with the Tourism Levy and Exemption Bill, which imposes a sustainable development fee (SDF) of Nu 1,200 per night per regional tourists. This makes it appear that the government is saying no to regional tourists, a bulk of which comes from neighbouring India.
Some Indian media have already picked up the change in the tourism policy and called it an end to free entry for Indian tourist. Some are appreciating the move in the name of sustainability and are mindful of the smallness of Bhutan and the capacity to handle mass tourism.
The growing number of vehicles in the country is overwhelming the limited infrastructure. Several governments have attempted, without success, to curtail the increasing number of vehicles in the country.
Helped by cheap loans and import quotas, vehicle number is registering the fastest growth rate in the country. If we cannot control Bhutanese from borrowing and buying, the increasing number of foreign vehicles on our roads is adding to the problem.
The decision should not be seen as blocking foreign vehicles on our roads. We drive through Indian roads and some Indian highways are our lifelines. As a land locked country, road is the only means of transport within the country. It is an important sector with thousands of people depending on it for livelihoods.
Tourists hiring local cars or taxis help the Bhutanese economy. The service sector is important for a small economy like ours. Even from a touristic approach, the government’s proposals would help regional tourist make most of their trip to Bhutan.
Bhutanese roads are notorious, especially for those not used to negotiating hairpin curves and narrow roads. Accidents records show that many of our guests have had harrowing experiences. In 2019 alone, records with traffic police show that there were 37 accidents involving foreign vehicles. One tourist lost his life and four returned home with severe injuries.
With increasing traffic, safety of tourists can be compromised when driving on new roads in difficult terrains. The decision should not be looked upon as imposing a ban.
Like the former Indian Ambassador to Bhutan, Gautam Bambawale wrote in an op-ed, the decision should not result in reciprocity. Circumstances in India and Bhutan are different. The broad Indian roads can accommodate a few additional Bhutanese cars.
Besides, it is not a new thing to restrict foreign vehicles. Sikkim, a small state that is closer, similar and environmentally vulnerable like us already has such a policy. Most Bhutanese who visit Sikkim appreciate and come back convinced by the policy of restricting taxis from other places to ply beyond Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim.