What is happening?
This was the big question yesterday after the National Assembly took a U -turn decision on the Nu 1,200 sustainable development fee (SDF).
The Assembly decided to do away with the SDF exemption for regional tourists visiting 11 dzongkhags, a decision they endorsed about two weeks ago when discussing the Tourism Levy and Exemption Bill 2020.
The National Council who reviewed the Bill then added four more dzongkhags to be exempted from the SDF. As it stands now, the entire section on exemption is scrapped, perhaps even demanding a new name for the Bill.
Notwithstanding what prompted the parliamentarians to completely change their decision or the manner in which it was done, the decision to not exempt any of the dzongkhag is a wise decision.
What is the purpose of the SDF?
Even before the issue came to the parliament, a minimal SDF was proposed both in the draft tourism policy and the pay commission’s report. This was one way to regulate and manage tourists effectively in the face of increasing tourists from the region.
The SDF was not to stop tourists from the region, but to give those who pay the fee and come to the country to make the most of their visit through proper management. The SDF was also not to promote tourism in the dzongkhags that members of parliament sought exemptions for.
Waiving off a small fee will not attract tourists. An attempt was made in the past. For the same reason, tourists wishing to visit eastern Bhutan were exempted the USD 65 fee or royalty. Hoteliers, tour agents and handicraft shops are still complaining of not seeing many tourists. USD 65 is more than double the Nu 1,200.
Tourists come to visit Bhutan for mainly two reasons. Bhutan is a cultural tourism hotspot. It is our unique culture and traditions and landscapes that attract tourists. Then there are our trekking routes, secluded and preserved, clean and pristine. Culture and trekking are the main attractions.
It is not only the Americans, Europeans or the Japanese that want to experience Bhutan and its uniqueness. Those in the region with appreciation for culture, nature and art visit Bhutan for the same reason.
There is another group, increasing every year, that finds Bhutan a cheap destination. The daily SDF will help manage mass tourism that overcrowd every tourist spot bringing in their cars, guides and sometimes food.
We are talking about a long term tourism policy. Not a short-term to make revenue from fees. After much problems and discourse, we have realised that we need a policy to control mass tourism. From the discussions at the parliament, it seems that not many cannot look beyond their dzongkhag, their vote bank.
If we want tourists to visit places other than Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, or Bumthang, we need good plans to attract them, starting with improving infrastructure.
What are the attractions? What did we put back from the billions of money we made from tourism thus far to develop or leverage on the potential of other dzongkhags?
What is happening there? This is the relevant question.