The ongoing rural electrification works along the Jomolhari trek has allegedly obstructed trekking activities

Tourism: The ongoing rural electrification works along the Jomolhari trek route to supply electricity to the remote gewogs of Soe and Lingzhi has obstructed trekking activities along the route, according to tour operators.

As one of the most popular trekking routes, tour operators said almost 90 percent of trekking tourists trek the Jomolhari route every year. But tour operators said that the trek route has been destroyed because of the power transmission lines.

A tour operator said travel agencies that had organised spring treks this year were the most affected with power distribution lines and felling of trees everywhere along the trek route. “This clearly indicates that there is no consideration or coordination among the tourism stakeholders and the agencies concerned,” he said.

Some tour operators also said that they received complaints from counterpart agents abroad asking them to look for alternative routes, as they can no longer promote the Jomolhari trek route. “We can’t even take photographs without power distribution lines obstructing the view,” one said. “The power lines spoil the overall aesthetics of the route,” he said.

The Problem  

The issue could have been prevented if the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) or the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) came up with Nu 755,126 for the realignment works as Bhutan Power Corporation (BPC) proposed.

After the association informed BPC of the issue, a joint survey was conducted comprising TCB, BPC and Jigme Dorji National Park (JDNP) officials. Based on the joint report, BPC proposed that the 33KV line could be realigned if a fund of Nu 755,126 could be arranged. BPC wrote to ABTO to arrange the fund so that the contractor would be informed to execute the work as proposed.

However, with neither ABTO nor TCB coming up with the fund, BPC went ahead with the works as planned.

BPC’s managing director Gem Tshering said that the rural electrification works are being carried out as planned. If the agencies concerned provide the funds, realignment and underground cabling is possible. However, realignment is cheaper while the underground cabling would cost about five times more.

Gem Tshering also said that the works could not be stopped, as it had to be completed in line with their target to provide electrification for all by 2017. “However, in future if the tourism sector manages the fund, underground cabling is possible,” he said.

ABTO’s executive director Sonam Dorji said that as the association was concerned about the activities along the trek route, they alerted the agencies concerned accordingly. “But as an association, we don’t have funds,” he said, adding that BPC had been considerate enough.

Following complaints from tour operators, ABTO on October 21 last year wrote to TCB seeking intervention. A copy of the letter was also sent to the BPC, Department of Forests and Park Services, the Nature Recreation and Ecotourism Division, and JDNP.

Highlighting issues with power transmission lines passing throughout the route and campsites, the letter states that the association respects the power supply activities but that the consequences on tourism needs to be considered. “Since the work is underway, we would like to suggest if realignment could be done to avoid blocking view of the Jhomolhari mountain and also consider laying the cables underground in certain areas possible,” it states.

BPC on October 28 responded reasoning that the Australian Development Agency funded the rural electrification project and the BPC as an implementing agency had followed all the requirements for the rural electrification project. As the area falls under JDNP, BPC has no liberty of changing the right of ways frequently as environmental clearances have been issued on the condition that BPC will follow the footpath to minimise damage to  vegetation as far as possible, the letter states.

Following BPC’s proposal to arrange funds for realignment of the power lines, ABTO wrote to TCB for partial financial support to carry out the realignment works. However, ABTO officials said they never heard from TCB.

TCB officials refused to comment on the issue.

Development Vs tourism

Over the years, numerous farm roads built to connect remote villages in the country have cut through many of the existing trekking routes, frustrating tourists, who expected to walk and trek through pristine forests and untouched landscape.

As of 2013, more than 4,000km of farm roads crisscross the countryside, benefiting around 44,000 rural households as of 2013. According to tourism stakeholders, the trek duration is cut short because of farm roads, and in some cases, trekkers also walk the road to complete the trek.

There are around 23 trekking routes in the country of durations varying from a night to around 40 nights. Last year, the Druk Path trek recorded the highest trekkers at 1,137 followed by the Jomolhari and Laya-Gasa treks recording 665 and 297 trekkers respectively, the recently released Bhutan Tourism Monitor states.

Kinga Dema