ECP highlights major transformation in tourism sector

Younten Tshedup 

Much to the relief of businesses in Samdrupjongkhar and Sarpang, the government will set up two integrated check post facilities in Gelephu and Samdrupjongkhar.  This was identified in the government’s Economic Contingency Plan (ECP).

The need for entry points besides Paro and Phuentsholing had been debated in the past with the National Assembly in January 2019 endorsing a motion to allow entry and exit of regional tourists through the border towns of Samdrupjongkhar, Gelephu, Samtse, Nganglam and Panbang. 

Series I of the ECP that was launched yesterday state that the move is in preparation for the re-opening of the tourism sector and to facilitate a more proportional spread of tourists across the country, especially in the southern foothills with favourable weather conditions in winter.

According to the Bhutan Tourism Monitor, 2018, around 35 percent of the international tourists who visited Bhutan in 2018 cited the country’s favourable weather condition as the primary reason for their visit.

Besides opening new entry points, the government and the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) would also study the readiness of the sector to implement the much-debated sustainable development fee (SDF).

As per the ECP document, in preparation to reopen the sector, implementation modality for the SDF for regional tourists is being finalised. An interim standard operating protocol (SOP) for SDF has also been drafted and would come into operation until the full guideline for management of regional tourism is rolled-out as part of the national tourism policy.

The SOP will facilitate and guide the payment of SDF, outline the roles and responsibilities of stakeholders in terms of the SDFs and enhance professionalism and service delivery for regional tourists.

The contingency plan would also assess and plan a way forward for the budget hotels that are not certified by the TCB.

Today, it is mandatory for minimum daily package rate (MDPR) tourists to stay at least in three-star hotels certified by the council. The regulations do not apply for non-MDPR tourists.

With the surge in non-MDPR tourists in the country, demand for uncertified hotels has increased leading to their proliferation, which now has crossed over 500, as per the ECP document.

It was learnt that the economic affairs ministry licensed non-star (budget) hotels and apartments while there was no standard regulation, guideline or a lead agency to monitor the standards or quality of services offered by such accommodation providers.

The implementation of the SDF would necessitate regional tourists to stay in TCB certified hotels. Therefore, TCB as part of its SDF preparedness strategy would conduct a nationwide survey of the uncertified hotels for possible certification.

Trained tour guides, hotel staff and tour operations staff would conduct the survey, to meet the objective of engaging displaced people in the sector.

Another major transformation is enhancing and strengthening procedures for tourists to come to Bhutan. Currently, tour booking is a lengthy procedure and sometimes takes a year. The system has been in place since tourism first began in 1974.

To improve service delivery in the sector, TCB would build an integrated system of online VISA processing, bookings, information sharing and payments. Once the integration is achieved, possible undercutting and tax evasion issues are also likely to be solved.

Also, the existing practice of making manual updates for credit advice received from banks would be automated and the service delivery turn-around-time (TAT) would be significantly decreased.


For immediate impacts 

To gainfully engage those who have been displaced in the sector, several short-term programmes such as infrastructure and product development, surveys and studies, training and re-skilling, and waste management activities are included in the ECP.

TCB plans to provide employment to 1,000 tourism laid-off employees through these different initiatives.

Beautification and up-gradation of tourist sites including development of new trails, roadside amenities and campsites worth Nu 44.86 million (M) has also been identified. About 343 people are expected to be employed through the initiative.

Some 70 enumerators mostly laid off tourism employees would conduct a nationwide survey to establish a tourism resource inventory (TRI). The inventory would contain a comprehensive database containing various tourist attractions, products, services and infrastructure.

An indicative fund of over Nu 16M has been proposed to complete the survey.

Bhutan saw more than 2,400 cancellations of VISA after the onset of Covid-19 in March and the closure of hotels and allied businesses catering to the sector.

The tourism sector started bearing the impact of the pandemic as early as November last year with cancellation of several travel plans.

As per the Budget Report 2020, revenue from the tourism sector declined by 41 percent in 2019-2020 compared to 2018-2019.