Without concrete rules or regulations or a policy, the decision to impose a sustainable development fee of Nu 1,200 on tourists from the region seems to be the best bet.
The Nu 1,200 per day per person on adult tourists is already been debated with some calling it too expensive and some finding it cheap when compared with the USD 65 imposed on international tourists.
The number of tourists from the region has to be managed. We have seen in the recent past how unmanaged tourism is taking the Bhutanese tourism in the wrong direction. Our leadership had, for decades, resisted the temptations to harness the quick fortunes from mass tourism and insisted on reaping the benefits of a small and manageable number while focusing on sustainability.
Given the economic prosperity the region is enjoying, Nu 1,200 per day per tourist will not been seen as an exorbitant fee. The profile of tourist from our region is changing. We are, for instance, not seeing the busload of tourist with cooking pots and sack loads of rice on the bus top.
A majority of the tourists now stay in luxury hotels, hire guides and cars and even travel into the interiors. This group will not mind the SDF. Some might appreciate it because they are also complaining of overcrowding and seeing the same face at every tourist spot.
If those who want to make the most of it on a shoe string budget, driving their cars, risking their safety and get into trouble because they are not guided decide not to visit Bhutan, this is exactly what we are looking at.
Tourists have to be managed, not because we need to hire our cars or keep the guides engaged, but to let our guests make the most of their holiday or excursion. We have, in the past, seen how some tourist even lost their lives when not accompanied by guides. We have also been witness to curious and unguided tourists get into trouble.
The SDF may not be to make revenue, but given the increasing numbers it could be a good source of revenue that could be ploughed back to improving infrastructure like roads, even toilets.
It could be invested in innovations to attract tourists beyond a few dzongkhags.
The Tourism Levy and Exemption Bill of Bhutan 2020 also exempts the SDF on 11 dzongkhags to attract tourists. Exempting the fee alone cannot attract tourist. We attempted that before. Eastern Bhutan, even without the USD 65 fee or royalty, is not seeing many tourists.
Road has been widened or smoothen, we have an airport in the east, yet the increase in number is negligible. The problem it seems is not in fees or infrastructure. The problems could be in how we market eastern Bhutan or what we have to market. If it were for the dzongs and the lhakhangs, tourists would have already, like someone said, “dzonged” out before they reach Trashigang dzong.
Everybody agrees that tourists, as our guests, should enjoy and take good memories of brand Bhutan. What we are seeing after the influx of unmanaged tourists is against the very vision of “high value -low volume.”
There will be repercussions from levying fees on some. But like the Lyonchhen says, it is always better to milk the red cow and have milk everyday instead of beef at once!