Department of Tourism Director General Dorji Dhradhul speaks at the first edition of the Economic Times Travel and Tourism Annual Conclave and Awards in New Delhi, India on March 16. Excerpts.
Bhutan has always been a front-runner in promoting sustainable tourism. The recent hike in sustainable development fee (SDF) however came as a big bold move. How did it impact the numbers?
Indeed the hike in SDF and other transformations in our tourism is a big bold move. And I like to add that – it is the right move and also timely, otherwise we would have been too late. This difficult, bold, and farsighted decision was inspired by “Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste.” So, we found a silver lining in the cloud of Covid-19 crisis, and the silver lining was to embark on national transformation, of which the tourism transformation is one of the major highlights.
And yes, the transformation in tourism, including the hike in SDF is geared towards further strengthening sustainable tourism by making our tourism more professional as an industry, more exclusive, experiential and rewarding for the visitors, and more inclusive and holistic for the citizens. Basically going back to our roots of the timeless tourism policy and practice of “High-value, low volume.”
And coming to the question, yes, the hike in SDF and other changes is impacting the arrival numbers, but then, it is also true that arrivals were anyway forecasted to be low, due to other factors, viz: post-pandemic stress, the war situation in Ukraine, global economic downturn and increasing inflation.
This is evident from the fact that even some otherwise popular and highly accessible destinations are even resorting to offering free tickets and other freebies to attract and improve arrivals.
But I believe that numbers will pick up in a much more sustainable way. And let’s also remind ourselves that Covid-19 has taught us not to take tourism for granted nor to depend on it totally.
Bhutan has been building on nature and heritage tourism. What changes have you brought about in your marketing strategy?
It is true that pre-pandemic, Bhutan was primarily visited for nature and culture, which will of course continue to be so.
However, as we know that globally, the mindset and behaviour of travellers are changing after the pandemic. Now we are talking of “Conscious Travellers” referring to travellers who are responsible, mindful and discerning. Travellers who are more climate and community conscious; want to feel connected to the people and places they visit; focus on more refined tastes and preferences; they don’t want replicas, rather they want the real thing – authenticity; focus more on health and wellness that span beyond the gymnasium; shift toward longer journeys with deeper richer experiences encompassing emotional and spiritual; multi-generational and family travel; an increasing quest for discovery; and wanting to do things no one has ever done before – such as travelling to more remote and exotic places, pushing boundaries and rare experiences. And Bhutan wants to renew and reinforce our commitment to hosting conscious travellers. In fact, we have been trying to do the same all along for the last half-century.
Therefore, strategically with the reopening of Bhutan to tourism on September 23, 2022, Bhutan launched a new national brand and a tagline: “Bhutan Believe” to keep up with these changing times and to synchronise with the national transformation. Bhutan Believe has replaced the earlier tourism brand – Happiness is a place.
Bhutan Believe is expected to reflect, represent and respect the “Conscious Travelers.”
We realised that our old brand tagline – “Happiness is a place” was not so authentic, because “happiness” is something more internal and not necessarily dependent on a place or someone else or a thing for that matter. Whereas “Believe” is definitely more “authentic” and “internal.” Bhutan Believe invites you to explore and re-connect with your inner self and the world.
What is Bhutan’s new offer to visitors with enhanced SDF?
We offer our new national brand – Bhutan Believe!
With Bhutan Believe, a sense greets you in Bhutan that other possibilities, other ways of being in the world and experiencing life are possible. Far from the humdrum, the hectic, hollow luxury and high pressure, Bhutan is proof that happiness, connection, respite and revelation are our birthright. Restoring one’s sense of belief is the kingdom’s real gift to its visitors. The nation itself believes in a better future, led by wisdom from its past – a belief it is manifesting daily.
We invite our guests to be part of our nature, culture and visions and by default engage them in contributing to the sustainable development goals (SDGs).
We aspire to offer our guests an exclusive, experiential and engaging time in our country that will continue to be a pristine and protected nature; authentic and distinctive culture; private sanctuary and wellbeing; elevated valued experiences; exclusivity and discovery; connection and welcome and; meaningful participation.
How do you look to “seal the new travellers?” now that Bhutan has become an even more expensive destination to visit? Any other way to incentivise the travellers/agents?
Before answering your question, I like to inform you that India has been and will continue to be the number one destination for outbound Bhutanese. Now, Bhutanese have started to venture to other new destinations in India, viz. Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Northeast and South India.
And coming to the question, honestly, I see only opportunity – as long as we continue to grow, develop, project and offer our destination as an exclusive and sustainable destination, which is what we have been doing and want to do in future. In fact, this has been further reassured, when H.E. Shri Narendra Modi, the Hon’ble PM of India at a recent webinar on “Developing Tourism on Mission Mode” on March 3, 2023, asked stakeholders for “New Strategies and Target High Spending Tourists.” With this, we realise that our tourism transformation appears to be in synchrony with India’s way forward too. This means the success of high-spending tourism in India would definitely and gradually usher a higher volume of high-spending tourists to Bhutan also.
Besides, we believe, Bhutan should not face the dearth of tourist arrivals with India as our closest neighbour. A report by UNWTO and European Travel Commission says that Indian outbound markets are worth over USD 22 billion. We also know India has 166 billionaires and over 600,000 USD millionaires, which is almost the same as our total population. Even if we get a fraction of the USD 22 billion Indian outbound tourists, Bhutan will be overwhelmed.
We have gained a lot of insights.
India and Bhutan bond together through strong ties of friendship that are rooted in a common spiritual heritage and characterised by trust and mutually beneficial cooperation is today appreciated as a great example of good- neighbourliness. Indeed an exemplary model of peaceful co-coexistence between any superpower great nation like India in every sense and a tiny but well-meaning landlocked country like Bhutan.
Therefore, it is my honour to humbly wish our two great nations great success in our new tourism strategies to benefit our peoples and the spread of sustainable tourism across the world.