Bhutan needs to also start harnessing the potential of tourism market in India

Tourism: The influx of Indian tourists into the country without routing through local tour agents, known as informal tourism, has become a major problem for the tourism sector.

This was one of the issues Bhutanese tour operators raised with their counterparts from India during the Bhutan-India Tourism Conclave in Thimphu yesterday.

Bhutanese tour operators said the increasing number of Indian tourists coming in informally has resulted in poor service and unfortunate incidents such as the drowning incident in Mebartsho, Bumthang in 2013.

Such experiences, tourism officials, said can be avoided if Indian tourists come through tour agents and hire local guides.

Comprising 51 percent of the total tourist arrivals, India is the single largest tourist market for Bhutan in terms of number. Last year, Bhutan received 133,000 tourists in total, out of which 68,000 were Indians.

The upcoming visit of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to Bhutan next month is expected to boost tourist arrivals from the state, tourism officials said.

Tour operators also said it was difficult to provide quality service and security in Bhutan if Indian tourists do not come through formal channel.

“We don’t want seven tourists to crowd a hotel room. We don’t want a Bolero car crowded with tourists,” Karma Loday of Yangphel Tours and Travel said.

He said the dollar-paying tourists get first class treatment unlike regional tourists and stressed that regional tourists should get quality services and take home good experience of their stay in Bhutan.

President of Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI), Ugen Tshechup Dorji, said the informal tourism sector has to be streamlined to provide the best of services. “One of the ways to make tourists come back to Bhutan again and again is by giving them good experience through quality service,” he said.

He also said it was important for Bhutan to harness the potential of tourism market in India, one of the largest economies in the world. “So far, we have never looked next door (India), where there is a huge potential,” he said.

However, Ugen Tshechup Dorji also said there was a need to create adequate awareness on Bhutan as a tourist destination for potential Indian tourists. He said Bhutan was better known in Europe than in India.

An Indian tour operator said the Bhutanese counterparts should not compare Indian tourists with Western tourists as the latter have their own preferences. “Indian tourists are not alternative business to Bhutan. They bring business when you have nothing,” he said.

The Indian tour operators also said that today more Indian tourists fly into Bhutan, supporting the country’s high-end tourism policy. He said many Indian tourists are now paying more than Nu 10,000 a night and stay in hotels like the Le Meriden and Terma Linka.

Highlighting some of the problems faced by Indian tourists in Bhutan, he said Bhutanese hotels close after 9pm, which is quite early for Indian tourists. “Indian tourists are not like western tourists who go to their rooms after 7pm.”

While some participants from India said airfares should be cheaper to encourage Indian customers to use flights, others asked for Indian chefs in hotels.

Responding to the participants, Thinley Palden Dorji of Hotel Association of Bhutan said that with the increase in number of regional tourists, the Bhutanese mindset was now changing that Indian tourists are for good.

Until recently, he said the regional tourism was not so significant and that the problem arose because the Bhutanese hospitality industry was initially designed to cater to western high-end tourists.  He assured that Bhutanese hoteliers would adapt to the needs of Indian tourists as the number increases.

Speaking at the seminar, labour minister Ngeema Sangay Tshempo said tourists are encouraged to hire guides and come through local tour agents. “We treat tourists as our guests and they should not be left on their own,” he said, adding that the government encourages guided tourists.

The minister said the government is looking at taking tourists to eastern and southern Bhutan to avoid over-crowding in west and central dzongkhags.

Indian ambassador to Bhutan, Gautam Bambawale, said India recognises Bhutan’s low-volume-high-value tourism policy and that tourism is the main area operated by the private sector in the country.

MB Subba