For the group of tourists who were denied boarding their flight to Bhutan because of errors in their electronic copy of the visa, it was not the experience they expected, especially if they were paying the new SDF of USD 200. Coming through organized tour packages for “high-end” experience, the last thing they would have expected was leaving high and dry at the boarding gate.

 A suspense and curiosity was created when Bhutan rebranded itself as a high-end tourist destination and restricted tourists through the revised SDF. The USD 200 per person per day is not an issue with tourists who are in the country. Many who talked to local media didn’t mind the fee as long as the services and experience were good. And there were many others who were not after luxury hotels or comfy SUVs. They just wanted to experience Bhutan – the culture, the environment and the people.

 After all the marketing and promotion, tourists getting stuck at an airport for no fault of theirs is an embarrassment. There are no reports of the tourists complaining, but it sure must have been an experience to forget for them. 

The error happened because of lapses between officials of the tour company and the immigration department. It was a genuine error and everybody tried to resolve the issues before it escalated, but in vain. 

While the incident may pass as an unfortunate incident, it is a good learning experience for those involved in the tourism and allied sector. The reform in tourism created a hype. After a lull, tourist arrivals are picking up. Tour companies have managed to convince their agents and partners abroad to “believe” and visit Bhutan.   If we cannot stay true to the expectations we created, it will backfire.

There are so many issues to be ironed out before the spring season comes to an end. The complaints are genuine and not very difficult to solve. Tour companies are complaining of still having to run around with papers after applying for permits and approvals online, tourists are complaining of not being able to spend money because of limitations like credit cards not being accepted. Unlike Bhutanese travelling abroad with wads of cash in their bags, tourists use credit cards for almost everything. It is a loss for local businesses when tourists have to be turned away for not having cash in Ngultrums or INR.

We know where we are going wrong. We know what has to be done. Yet, we need to be reminded constantly because we tend to lose excitement too soon. A lot has been said about reducing bureaucracy and riding on technology to ease the burden of doing business. We are still faced with operating efficiency. What is the point of printing three sets of applications and dropping them to the immigration office, for instance, after applying the same online? What use is a dollar account if it cannot be used to pay for services? What use are integrated services if errors are leading to a waste of time and resources?

High-end experience starts from organizing the tour. Getting stuck at airports should not even be a concern.