In wake of increasing regional tourists visiting the country 

Tourism: Introduction of a green tax, monitoring of vehicle road worthiness and hotel occupancy, and mandatory services of licensed guides are some of the measures that the government could implement to handle the increasing regional or non-tariff paying tourists.

This is according to a report by the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) titled “Bhutan Tourism Review and Recommendations 2016,” wherein a think tank reviewed the current tourism situation and came up with several recommendations.

Despite being promoted as a high-end destination, Bhutan has recorded more regional tourists or non-tariff paying tourists than dollar-paying tourists over the years. In absence of a policy to govern regional tourists, the unprecedented growth of regional tourists is seen as a threat to dollar paying tourists or international tourists.

Most tourism stakeholders are of the view that mass tourism has already entered Bhutan against the backdrop of the country’s high value, low impact tourism policy that applies only to international tourists for now.

The think tank, therefore, proposed several recommendations to govern regional tourists for better management and to offer them a more meaningful trip.

The report states that on an average, 80 percent of all regional tourists enter the country by land and most hire vehicles from the border. About 60 percent visit during the main tourist season (March, April, May, September, October and November) adding to the already limited capacity of hotels, restaurants, attraction sites and roads during the peak season.

To encourage non-tariff tourists such as regional tourists and diplomatic/official passport holders of Thailand, it has been proposed that they route through local tour operators. The report states that licensed local tour agents be allowed to process the route permit for non-tariff tourists in advance through an online process where only licensed tour operators are given access for permit application.

That way tourists are expected to be informed about local customs, traditions, the dos and don’ts, and avoid undesirable trends or scenarios and mishaps. Besides, increasing tour payments through bank transfers to local tour operators and minimising leakages of INR through currency exchange at border towns.

Other benefits include minimising intermediary agents in the border towns and increase direct bookings. “It’s an opportunity to offer additional services, hence benefiting other suppliers in the tourism value chain,” the report states. “Taxation system would be streamlined and formalised if tour payments are routed through tour operators.”

This is also expected to minimise use of non-Bhutanese vehicles for tour in Bhutan while tourists would not waste time processing permits initially at the border towns and also in Thimphu.

It has also been recommended that the Tourism Council of Bhutan, the thromde or the trade department monitor hotel occupancy given the need to strictly implement the hotel room occupancy standards, mainly those that cater to regional tourists.

“The room occupancy for hotels is a standard practice and each room should not allow more than its capacity,” the report states. “Standard hotels can accommodate only up to three people (with an additional bed) in a room.”

This is being done for the safety of the clients, hygiene and carrying capacity of the hotel, the report states, citing issues such as some hotels accommodating over five to eight regional tourists in a single room.

“Such practices would not only compromise the safety but also the quality of services and experience of the destination,” the report states. “Monitoring would not only bring about standards for safety, security and hygiene but also keep a check on the type of tourists.”

Mandatory requirement of passport or voter identity card for checking-in into hotels has also been proposed stating that although these documents are required to process route permits, these documents are not used for checking-in into hotels. “Such a practice is industry standard and required for monitoring besides recording purposes in case of an emergency,” the report states.

The report also states that a licensed guide be required when visiting important tourist attractions like dzongs and or undertaking activities like trekking, as these attractions have limited space, and certain decorum and etiquette are required for visits to such sites.

Monitoring of vehicle roadworthiness including capacity besides introduction of a green tax were also highlighted.

As a majority of the non-tariff tourists bring their own vehicles or hire from the border towns, strict monitoring on compliance of the country’s internal vehicle regulations on roadworthiness has to be carried out for every vehicle entering the country, the report states.

The report further adds that the already growing traffic problems along the national highways has worsened with the increasing number of non-Bhutanese vehicles catering to non-tariff tourists. As new vehicles imported to Bhutan are subject to green tax, it has been proposed that foreign vehicles entering Bhutan also be levied a green fee.

“This fee can be levied based on duration and the type of vehicle or it could also be a one-time fee to offset carbon footprint,” the report states, citing the example of how different regions in India levy regional fees for vehicles from different regions and state.

Visitors from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives are referred to as regional tourists. Records indicate a steady increase in regional tourists over the years.

Last year 62.91 percent or 97,584 of all arrivals to Bhutan constituted of regional tourists, an increase of 49.21 percent from 2014. Among them, 92.98 percent were from India, 7.84 percent were from Bangladesh, and 0.07 percent from Maldives. Similarly, from 50,722 regional tourist arrivals in 2012, it increased to 63,426 and 65,399 in 2013 and 2014.

Kinga Dema