Opening up tourism or freeing the tariff is as complex as the functioning of the lucrative business. Both will have long-term implications and a good debate, the sort happening at the National Council, is what we need before we come to a decision.
The Council’s economic affairs committee is recommending retaining the current royalty portion and leaving the rest to the tour operators. This apparently is coming from consultation with those in the sector consulted. The logic is to break the stronghold of the few big companies and letting the benefit of the industry trickle down.
But this is contradicting what the same people in the same business expressed a few years ago. Perhaps, the situation had changed or more were consulted this time around, but liberalizing the tariff, they felt, could hurt the industry in a way that could be irreversible. The proposal then came from the government to generate more revenue and create employment opportunities by increasing the tourist numbers.
Tour operators then thought that more tourists would not necessarily mean more income. They expressed concern of the country being overrun by tourists who would not be spending as much as those visiting today. Interestingly, those cautioning against the recommendation are using the same reasons today. What tour operators fear most then was that they might simply be reduced to the role of commission agents living off a commission instead of operating a tourism business.
With wise leadership and farsighted vision, Bhutan was cautious in opening its door to tourists. If there was the fear of budget travellers overrunning Bhutan, the country also didn’t have infrastructure to handle tourists in big numbers. We are better off today in terms of roads, hotels and for that matter, cars and guides. But we would want to still restrict and have control over the number of foreigners visiting Bhutan.
We also don’t want to lose the allure as an exclusive destination. Our culture and heritage, a mainstay of tourism, also cannot be at stake because we want more money from the huge inflow of tourists. Our strength is taking a balanced approach and as cliché as it may sound, learning from mistake others have committed.
There are pros and cons in liberalizing the tariff. Which outweighs the other will be known through discourse and debate.
The concern of an influx of budget tourists and tour operators turning into mere commission agents are untrue. This is because the royalty of USD 65 a day still stands. Besides we know many operators are anyway operating on commissions. Undercutting is an industry norm despite a minimum daily tariff.
The same concerns are now interpreted in a different way, both are convincing. What we can look for in policy is to see the benefits of the industry trickle down to other sectors. We cannot have the industry holding others at ransom. The service sector should equally benefit. And we should not forget the communities, their culture and traditions that bring the tourist to the country.
It would be an ideal situation if the government maintained its commission and left the rest to competition for the purpose of going into high value tourism and allowing open competition. But the ground realities are different therefore, the need for discourse.