MB Subba

In what would be a major policy change, the government is planning to impose green tax on foreign vehicles carrying regional tourists in Bhutan.

According to the plan, each foreign vehicle will have to pay Nu 2,000 as entry free and as much amount as exit fee. But such vehicles should be parked at the hotel while in the country.

Regional tourists coming in such vehicles should hire local vehicles for sightseeing purposes. But they will be allowed to use their vehicle from one hotel to another within Bhutan, say from Thimphu to Paro for changing the place of lodging.

The second option is that regional tourists can come in a foreign vehicle and also use the same vehicle for sightseeing. The government will levy Nu 4,500 per day on such a vehicle, according to the plan.

Foreign Minister and chairman of Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), Dr Tandi Dorji, said that the policy is subjected to endorsement of the Cabinet. The policy, he said, has been discussed with stakeholders, including the TCB, but is yet to be tabled in the Cabinet.

“The policy need not go to the Parliament as it can be implemented as rules and regulations,” he said. Implementation date for the new policy is not finalised.

The plan is being discussed at a time when the National Assembly has endorsed the Tourism Levy and Exemption Bill, which imposes a sustainable development fee (SDF) of Nu 1,200 per night per regional tourists. The SDF is expected to be implemented from July this year.

The green tax plan has already been presented to Members of Parliament, who said it’s the prerogative of the government to implement or not.

The objective is to control vehicle congestion and provide jobs to local people. The proposed policy is expected to encourage regional tourists coming by road to hire Bhutanese vehicles.

The levy of green tax will be part of the policy reforms on regional tourists.

The prime minister on February 3 said in the National Assembly that tourist entry points would be opened in Gelephu and Samdrupjongkhar in July or August. Additional gates are expected to help tourism development in Sarpang and Samdrupjongkhar and the neighbouring dzongkhags where SDF for regional tourists will be exempted.

Dewathang Gomdar MP Ugyen Dorji, who moved the motion to open additional entry points in the first session, said that the passing of the Tourism Levy and Exemption Bill 2020 by parliament did not guarantee the immediate opening of Samdrupjongkhar and neighbouring dzongkhags to regional tourists.

“The government talks about shifting the Samdrupjongkhar check post from the current location to Dewathang. Second, the government also informed that an integrated checkpoint needs to be put in place on the Indian side,” he said.

The first session of Parliament endorsed the motion to allow entry and exit of regional tourists through the border towns of Samdrupjongkhar, Gelephu, Samtse, Nganglam, and Panbang.

However, the government has expressed security concerns against opening the additional entry points.

Some observers said that waiving the SDF in 11 dzongkhags identified by the Tourism Levy and Exemption Bill would not make sense if entry points are not opened to regional tourists in Samdrupjongkhar and Gelephu.

The opening of the additional gates and exemption of SDF are linked, as both are aimed at spreading the benefits of tourism development in all dzongkhags.

Athang Thedtsho MP Kinley Wangchuk said that Bhutan as a climate sensitive country should impose green tax not only on international vehicles but also local vehicles. “This is in line with global climate change prevention approach.”

A tour operator, Deebesh Bhattarai of DSB Tours & Travels, said the green tax on international vehicles might land more job opportunities for Bhutanese drivers and local vehicle owners. “It would drastically reduce people getting Indian vehicles into Bhutan.”

One of the concerns of such a policy has been whether locals in neighbouring states would ask for similar levies on Bhutanese vehicles. However, people coming to Bhutan in international vehicles are leisure tourists, while Bhutanese vehicles use Indian roads for transit and transport of goods.