Rejects Council’s objections

The National Assembly yesterday rejected the National Council’s resolution that asked the government to scrap the Tourism Levy Exemption Bill 2017, which waives off royalty of USD 65 a day per tourist visiting eastern dzongkhags.

In a show of hands, 30 MPs, mostly from the ruling party, voted to reject the Council’s recommendations. Opposition MPs including the opposition leader did not raise their hands.

The decision of the lower house means that tourists visiting the six dzongkhags of Lhuentse, Mongar, Trashigang, Trashiyangtse, Pemagatshel and Samdrupjongkhar will have to pay only USD 135 during the lean season and USD 185 during the peak season. The exemption of royalty will be implemented for three years.

The Bill was introduced as a money Bill on November 16. A Money Bill comes into effect from the date it is introduced in the Assembly.

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said that the exemption had to be introduced since most dzongkhags were unable to reap the benefit of the tourism industry. The exemption, he said, would not only benefit the eastern dzongkhags but the whole country.

He said fears that the policy would encourage overflow of tourists in the east were untrue. “Even if the flow of tourists doubles, that won’t have a negative impact,” he said.

The prime minister said that the policy was necessary to promote repeat tourists who would be encouraged to visit the eastern dzongkhags during their second visit.

“The policy will be implemented for three years, which will provide an opportunity to carry out marketing for the eastern dzongkhags. After that tourists would visit the eastern dzongkhags without Bhutan having to provide the exemption,” he said.

Economic Affairs Minister Lekey Dorji said the proposal to waive off royalty came from the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO).

“I don’t see the royalty waiver allowing backpackers and mass tourism,” he said, adding that the high-value low-impact policy would remain.

Opposition stands against royalty waiver    

Opposition members spoke in support of the Council’s objections although they had voted in favour of the Bill with some reservations when the Assembly passed it earlier this session.

Twelve out of 20 in the Council on Saturday had voted against the Bill. In the Assembly earlier, 37 out of 40 had voted for the Bill.

It depends on the government to either accept or reject the Council’s recommendations and objections since the Bill was passed as a money Bill.

Opposition leader Pema Gyamtsho (PhD) said that the Bill would endanger the country’s tourism policy of high-value low-impact.

“The issue is not only about waiving off USD 65. The exemption puts the tourism policy at risk,” he said.

Lamgong-Wangchang MP Khandu Wangchuk said the Council’s views were valid and that the government should not insist on passing the Bill. “Since the government has said that it is a pilot programme, there was no need to enact a law,” he said.

Panbang MP Dorji Wangdi said that he welcomed the Council’s recommendations, saying that most of the concerns were already discussed earlier.

He said it was the lack of infrastructure like domestic airports and good highways that have affected the growth of tourism in the eastern dzongkhags, not the royalty of USD 65. “The condition of the East-West highway is one of the main deterrents of tourism growth in the east,” he said. “We have been supporting the government wherever its policies are good.”

Dorji Wangdi said ABTO was not in favour of waiving the royalty as a means to promote tourism, but the prime minister said that the Panbang MP had not consulted ABTO. “ABTO is supportive of the royalty waiver plan,” the prime minister said.

However, the Panbang MP replied that he had met officials from ABTO to discuss the issue.

Council’s resolution

The Council states that the policy will directly undermine the much-cherished high-value low-impact tourism policy that Bhutan has followed based on the guidance and wisdom of His Majesty The Fourth King.

The upper house also cautions that through the exemption, the government could be inadvertently promoting lower-end tourism such as backpackers in the eastern region, while keeping the other tourists in western dzongkhags.

The Council stated that it was not convinced that the low volume of tourists visiting eastern dzongkhags was due to the royalty. The house has suggested the government to consider other alternatives such as infrastructure development, service improvement and product divarication.

MB Subba