That’s 20 percent within the 11th Plan, despite the less than four percent current footfall 

Tourism: Irrespective of the ongoing east-west highway widening work hampering tourism, the government is committed to take 20 percent of the total tourist arrivals to the east.

“We stand by that commitment,” Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said at the meet-the-press session yesterday.

Lyonchhoen said the number of tourists visiting the east and the south was woefully low. “Right now it’s barely four percent and, by the end of three years, we expect the number of tourists visiting the east by 20 percent.”

Lyonchhoen said that, to promote the east, there were many things to look into, like hotels, tourist products and treks, for which the government had to ensure proper communication. “We’re widening the roads and it’s going to hamper, but we have to because we have to improve the quality of roads to allow our tourists to enjoy the road,” lyonchoen said. “We want tourists not just to go to the east to see the east, but drive on a very beautiful road.”

Uniform distribution of benefits from tourism is also one of the pledges of the government, which, in its manifesto, states that at least 20 percent of tourist arrivals would visit the east by the end of the Plan period.  Besides, the government also promised to diversify tourism products to ensure regional spread and balanced seasonality growth.

The eastern circuit that includes Mongar, Lhuentse, Tashiyangtse, Tashigang and Samdrupjongkhar is one of the least explored regions today.

Concerns were raised by the tourism industry on the east-west highway widening works.  Although stakeholders lauded the initiative for better roads, they cited issues, such as lack of coordination among agencies, erratic roadblock timings, and lack of restroom facilities along the highway that made travel difficult.

With the ongoing widening works, another issue was the unreliable domestic airline services.  With tourism mainly concentrated in the west, tour operators said the domestic air service helped them showcase the eastern circuit through a new dimension.  However, it was short-lived, with domestic flights suspended in about six months after it started operations in December 2011.  The three domestic airports faced issues with runways and financial feasibility issues, followed by safety.

While flights to Bumthang have resumed, passengers complain of the unreliable flight schedule and frequent cancellations.  Suspension of flights also affected tourist hotels in Bumthang and Trashigang, as it led to numerous cancellations.

Regarding domestic airlines, lyonchhoen said the government was seriously looking at the schedule of flights flying into Bumthang, while the Yonphula airport was expected to take time.

“When we start helicopter services, it would help and we expect many more tourists going to the east using helicopter services,” lyonchhoen said. “Our target is to increase tourist arrivals throughout the country.”

While many tour operators were keen on promoting the east as a tourist hotspot, they said the road condition and lack of infrastructural development to cater to tourists were major issues.  Some said unless there were incentives, like reduction of royalty or a better product and pricing mechanism in place, it would be still remain a far-fetched dream.  Except for a handful of decent hotels catering to tourists, accommodation was another issue.  Farm stays were introduced, but are yet to gain popularity among tourists.

“Considering the profile of visitors to Bhutan, the long and bumpy ride to the east without roadside amenities is challenging,” a tour operator said. “There are times we don’t have a choice but to make our guests relieve in a bucket and this is no exaggeration.”

Since 2012, Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) has been carrying out surveys to develop the east as a tourist hotspot in the coming years.  Having recruited consultants for the eastern circuit tourism development plan, TCB officials said the plan would be ready by the end of this fiscal year.

As is the trend, records with TCB show that Paro and Thimphu received the highest visitors in 2013, followed by Punakha and Bumthang.  Arrivals in the eastern dzongkhags recorded a slight decrease in arrivals compared to 2012.  The Merak-Sakteng trek also recorded a slight decrease in arrivals, with only 113 visitors from 120 in 2012.

By Kinga Dema