The ethics and principles of tour operators are questioned as issues of rampant undercutting and selling Bhutan at cheap tour packages surface.

The Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) issued two notifications recently, cautioning tour operators not to offer cheap tour packages, claiming that there are ex-country tour operators, companies or individuals in partnership with Bhutanese partners engaging in the unethical business.

A notification stated that there are websites that offer cheap flights, accommodation and food, which could be possible but at a maximum level of compromise in the services offered to the tourists. “This is not allowed by our tourism policy of “High Value and exclusivity.”

It also stated that such unethical practice will pose a high and real risk in getting the reputation of our “High value and Exclusivity” tourism marred. “This also poses a huge risk on the health and safety of the tourists. Bhutan Tourism believes in giving the best experiences to all tourists.”

TCB stated it condemns such illegal practices. “Bhutan Tourism has a minimum tariff to ensure a comfortable experience if not exclusive. TCB condemns such practices and if such practices are caught with evidence, the defaulters will be dealt as per the existing rules.”

It also cautioned prospective tourists to be careful and avoid dealings with such unethical practices.

TCB also issued another notification on April 30, cautioning residential property owners,who operate illegally as tourist accommodation that they might face legal actions.

It stated that TCB is working on the revision of classification and certification for tourist accommodation and until that is done, the existing classification and certification will continue to apply.

While TCB did not mention any names, Kuensel learnt that the latest notification is directed towards those providing Airbnb facility.

It was learnt that tour operators keep tourists in Airbnb accommodation without the knowledge of the tourist to facilitate undercutting.

There are more than 260 properties listed under Airbnb in Bhutan.

While most properties are listed in Thimphu, Paro and Punakha, places like Wangdue, Bumthang, Tsirang, Haa, Phuentsholing, Gelephu, Panbang and Lhuentse also have Airbnb facility.

A source said Airbnb is impacting tourism, as it is cheaper than hotels with three stars and above. “Airbnb can afford cheaper price since it has no cost involved.”

Citing examples of tour operators accommodating tourists in Airbnb, the source said that tour operators could then afford to provide lower packages to tourists, impacting the high-value low volume tourism policy.

Addressing the undercutting and Airbnb issues are complex, according to TCB officials.

Director general, Dorji Dhradhul, said there is no one solution to address the issues.

“It is a combination of so many things and doing away with it is difficult but TCB has to minimise or reduce the undercutting,” he said. “From TCB’s side, we are trying to make Bhutan a top destination of high value. When tour operators offer cheap rates, we lose our exclusivity.”

He said that every time they work on an issue, another arises.

Dorji Dhradhul said strengthening, monitoring and implementing the present rules, regulations and policies could help in addressing the issues.

He said TCB issues a visa to tourist once they fulfil the formalities of paying the visa fee and all logistic arrangements are made. “TCB could crosscheck with hotels listed in the visa application to check if the tourists stayed in the hotels. We will cancel the licenses of tour operators who default.”

He said TCB knows who are the local partners that work with ex-country tour operators to undercut. “But we will have to establish evidence.”

The director general said while making a profit, they are devaluing the destination.

He said it has taken more than four decades to preserve brand Bhutan, a visionary policy and the country has reached a critical juncture wherein there are many risks to the policy.

Dorji Dhradhul said it is the responsibility of every Bhutanese, especially tour operators and hoteliers to preserve the policy. “They might have an immediate benefit from undercutting but they should think of the long-term impact. We would lose our exclusivity and high-value low impact policy.”

Tashi Dema