Once deemed a security risk, the dzongkhag feels it is now ready to benefit from tourists

Tourism: Confusion still prevails among residents and officials if Samdrupjongkhar is still listed under the “negative list”, although tourism is viewed as a lucrative business.

The negative list is a list of places or sites identified by the home ministry as out of bounds for tourists.

Residents say the dzongkhag was marked under the list because of security issues.  The issue has been raised several times in the past during dzongkhag and thromde tshogdus.

Residents pointed out that being on the negative list has decreased tourist flow to the dzongkhag, and that it was time for Samdrupjongkhar to be removed from the list.  They pointed out that potential tourism opportunities are affected and the dzongkhag has remained isolated.

Residents say rural places and the two dungkhags will see development and an effective tourism industry created.

The previous government had allowed for an entry and exit immigration point in Samdrupjongkhar to be established in order to facilitate tourism.  But it has not helped.

This is because, according to immigration officials, tourists can enter Samdrupjongkhar, but are allowed to visit only the municipality area and not beyond for sight seeing.  The immigration check post receives about 500 tourists, the majority of them Indian, in a month.

But this has only benefited hoteliers and not the local communities or the local residents even though the tourist flow increased every year.

The owner of Mountain Hotel, Abina, said, after the entry and exit point was opened, it benefitted the hotel business, but she agreed that Samdrupjongkhar need to be listed as a tourist destination.

“We receive almost 400 third country tourists in a year, which wasn’t possible before when the dzongkhag was completely closed to tourism,” she said. “If we’d made only 20 percent profit of the total expenditure, now we make almost more than 50 percent profit.”

Another hotel owner Kuenga Norbu said if they (tourists) were allowed to go to the rural areas, it would not only benefit villagers but also help many hotel or resorts to come up.

“Today, tourists come and halt only a night or two, but if they have opportunity to visit other dungkhags and gewogs, they could increase their stay,” he said.  Business owners also said that more tourism attraction has to be developed, as, except for the dzong, there wasn’t much to offer.

Local leaders said there were some gewogs where tourist could visit, camp and enjoy various festivals, including bird watching.  Thromde theumis expressed they were still not clear if the dzongkhag was still forbidden for tourists.

Opening to tourism could improve the livelihood of the people and contribute more to the economy, according to local leaders.  A resident said, without investment, the dzongkhag couldn’t develop. “For people to invest in tourism-related business, it has to be made clear if the dzongkhag is still in the negative list,” he said.

Orong gup Khawjay said there were many opportunities in the gewogs, and more development plans could come up if tourists were allowed to visit rural places, like for local festivals.

“Every time we raise the issue, we’ve always been questioned what can we provide to the tourists and that the issue would be submitted to the government and respective ministry. But until now nothing has come up.”

Samdrupjongkhar thrompon, Karma Sherab Thobgyal, said that, as far as the thromde was concerned, the dzongkhag still fell in the negative list because no communication had been received.  He agreed that regional tourists could enhance local economy if, for instance, trekking paths were developed.

“We’ve written to concerned agencies and ministry, but never received proper information,” he said. “Thromde could develop hotel standards, bring in better facilities and create a proper recreation centres.”

Dzongdag Goling Tshering said, although there was no written letter if the dzongkhag fell in the negative list, they were developing a recreation park on the way to Dewathang for locals, which could also serve as facilities to tourists.

“If lifted from the negative list, tourists could enjoy the bucolic life, hikes and some wild animal sight seeing in dungkhags,” he said.

Meanwhile, Tourism Council of Bhutan’s marketing division’s officer, Damcho Rinzin, said, Samdrupjongkhar has good tourism attraction, but sightseeing to other areas in the dzongkhag would not happen until the government lifted the current restriction.

“Otherwise, the dzongkhag has everything that tourists would want to experience,” he said, adding TCB has developed circuit development plan for three dzongkhags including Samdrupjongkhar that would include tourism resources inventory and recommendations.

Samdrupjongkhar town holds the distinction of being the oldest town in Bhutan, according to the TCB website.

By Yangchen C Rinzin, Samdrupjongkhar