The govt.’s priority is to conduct tourism activities without undermining the high impact, low value policy

Toursism: Although the unprecedented growth of regional tourists is a concern, the government is prepared and measures are in place to address the increasing number of visitors without undermining the high impact, low value tourism policy.

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, at the meet-the-press session yesterday, said that it is the government’s responsibility to carry out tourism activities without undermining the high value, low impact policy. “Be it an increase in regional or international tourists, it’s the government’s responsibility to address it,” Lyonchoen said.

However, Lyonchoen did not reveal the plans or measures to overcome increasing tourists. Lyonchoen also said that numerous meetings were held on the issue. “We are aware of the risks and we will discuss the outcome of the meetings with all stakeholders,” Lyonchoen said. “Based on the support from stakeholders, we will start implementing.”

In absence of a policy to govern regional tourists, the unprecedented growth of regional tourists over the years is seen as a threat to dollar paying tourists against the backdrop of the high value, low impact tourism policy. The policy applies only to dollar-paying or international tourists.

Tourism stakeholders, therefore, highlighted the need for a policy to govern regional tourists for better management and to offer them a meaningful trip.

Visitors from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives are referred to as regional tourists.

Records indicate a steady increase in regional tourists over the years. Last year 62.91 percent or 97,584 of all arrivals to Bhutan constituted of regional tourists, an increase of 49.21 percent from 2014. Among them, 92.98 percent were from India, 7.84 percent were from Bangladesh, and 0.07 percent from the Maldives. Similarly, from 50,722 regional tourist arrivals in 2012, it increased to 63,426 and 65,399 in 2013 and 2014.

Until a couple of years ago, regional tourists were not part of tourism statistics. However, now that their numbers are used as a yardstick for achieving targets, tour operators said there should be certain regulations in place not just to monitor but also to effectively manage and optimise tourism benefits. As most regional tourists enter the country unguided and drive their own vehicles without any restriction, they said this has started to have an impact on dollar-paying tourists.

Unlike international tourists, regional tourists are exempt from paying the minimum daily tariff of USD 250 and 200 for the peak and lean seasons. They also do not require visas to enter the country and process their entry and route permits from the immigration department upon arrival.

As of April this year, the country recorded 33,397 regional tourists while international tourist arrivals stood at 18,907.

Lyonchoen said that he was aware of the issues given that the country is sold as a high-end destination to dollar paying tourists. The growth, according to Lyonchoen, is a concern as well as something to be proud of.

“We expect the arrivals of international tourists to increase this year given the Bhutan-Japan friendship offer,” he said. “Although international tourist arrivals have not increased substantially, it is increasing adequately for now.”

Lyonchoen said the increase in regional visitors would benefit the economy and that not all regional tourists come via land when they visit Bhutan. “We must think of opportunities from the increasing regional visitors.”

“Those who come from Phuentsholing also stay in good hotels but we’ve also heard of those who don’t stay in hotels and pitch tents,” he said. “We’ve also heard of drivers complaining of losing business as the regional tourists drive their own vehicles.”

Lyonchoen said that concerns arise, as Bhutan is a small country without enough space to accommodate the increasing tourists. “Dollar paying tourists complaining of the difference between them and regional tourists is also a concern,” he said.

However, Lyonchoen emphasised the importance of regional tourists to foster existing ties between the countries. The Tourism Council of Bhutan is also exploring solutions and in doing so, all relevant agencies would be consulted.

To begin with, Lyonchoen said the online permit application system would be implemented soon to avoid waiting at the immigration counter for hours. Should the regional tourists opt to apply for permits online, they require hotel reservations and have to route through local tour operators.

“If the system turns out well, then we will make it mandatory to process entry permits online,” Lyonchoen said. “That is only after the pilot phase is executed and received well by regional tourists and all stakeholders in the industry.”

Kinga Dema