Dechen Tshomo

The tourism sector representatives said that the government’s proposal to levy a daily Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) for regional leisure tourists is a good move to tackle the issues related to regional tourists.

Finance Minister Namgay Tshering introduced a bill at the National Assembly yesterday to amend the Tourism Levy Exemption (Amendment) Act 2018.

“The proposed amendment is to introduce USD 16.25 or 25 percent of the tourism levy of USD 65 per night halt on the regional leisure tourists visiting Bhutan.”

The levy, the minister said was expected to generate additional revenue besides promoting Bhutan as a high-end tourism destination in keeping with the policy of high value, low volume tourism.

The minister said international leisure tourists pay SDF of USD 65 per night halt.

Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators’ (ABTO) executive director Sonam Dorji said the SDF was one of the components of managing regional tourists. “Levying the SDF on regional leisure tourists is more or less in line with what the association has recommended to the government.”

However, he said the association is yet to see the other aspects of managing regional tourists.

Chairman of Guide Association of Bhutan (GAB), Garab Dorji said it was the right time for the amendment and levying the SDF. “We support the proposal. This would deter backpackers and other low-budget travellers.”

He said it alone cannot control mass tourism. “Bhutan has been ranked as one of the best tourist destinations and overall, there are over 500 million millionaires in Asia who can afford to come to Bhutan.”

With the implementation of the SDF, he said only those who can afford and who genuinely want to visit Bhutan, who value the country’s culture and tradition will visit the country.

“Most of my clients from the region including India, when asked about the SDF, supports levying the SDF,” he said. “Indians tourists told me that Bhutan being a small country it has to have measures to protect itself from mass tourism.”

Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan’s (HRAB) chairman Sonam Wangchuk said while the association fully supports the government’s move to have a proper regulation to manage regional tourists, the association requests the government to revisit the amount to be levied and to look at it holistically.

Sonam Wangchuk said 25 percent of USD 65 per person per night halt may be minimal for single travellers or couples. But, for those visitors who come in groups of families, which usually is the travelling pattern of the regional tourists, the amount is high to start with.

He said even if they come as couples for five days then they have to pay Nu 17,000 which includes charges of hiring a guide. This excludes expenditure on accommodation, meals and local transport, among others.

He suggested that initially if a certain amount like Nu 500 to be imposed like a visa fee per entry or whatever amount is proposed, levy it per person per trip. “This would not discourage travellers to visit the country.”

The association is of the opinion that levying 25 percent of USD 65 as the SDF for regional tourist will reduce the number of arrivals and the hoteliers could be affected.

Hoteliers’ investment, he said is huge compared to other stakeholders’ and the burden will be unbearable and the hoteliers are concerned. “This is why our voices are more frequent than others.”

He said it is not only about the hotel owners. If the occupancy in hotels drops, the owner has to cut down its employment size which will result in unemployment and uncertainty in the job market. “It is not only about profit, but it is also about so many indirect factors that are lined up with this SDF.”

If the government is going to control the number of tourists coming in then at a point of time, the construction of hotels should be stopped. “Those who are applying to construct hotels continued to apply and those who approve continued to do so,” he added.

The environment and climate change committee will review the Bill and present the findings to the House for deliberation of February 3.