… the money Bill after NA’s adoption today will be tabled at National Council this session

Tshering Palden 

The National Assembly yesterday agreed to all the provisions in the Tourism Levy Bill 2022. The House will vote and adopt the Bill today morning, which remains only a formality.

The members deliberated on the recommendations from the economic and finance committee, which was tasked to review the Bill after the first and second hearings on June 20.

The Economic and finance committee chairperson, Kinga Penjor reported that there was overwhelming support for the reform from across the sectors. “We consulted with many stakeholders and what became obvious was the support to the intent and the principles behind this reform,” he said.

Other members of the committee, and some from the Opposition Party echoed similar views.

The committee tabled only one recommendation, the other two being clerical changes.

Section 6 of the Bill states, “Notwithstanding Section 4 of this Act, a tourist who had paid and confirmed the tour under the Tourism  Levy Act of Bhutan 2020 on or before 20th June 2022  shall continue to benefit subject to conditions imposed under Tourism Levy Act of Bhutan 2020 and Rules  thereof.”

The committee recommended that this consideration be extended from June 20 until December 31, 2022.

Kinga Penjor said that stakeholders in the tourism sector raised the issue of readiness in terms of resources and facilities. “Some even requested for an extension of two years which would be adequate for them to prepare and the resources to be ready,” he said.

He said that according to figures obtained from those in the tourism industry of 5,000 guides 3,115 were active.

“Between September last year and this month, 27,266 tourists have booked their tours and many hotels and restaurants have availed of loans amounting to around Nu 48 billion,” he said.

He said that the committee after going through the evidence presented to them, mostly by those in the industry since the Tourism Council of Bhutan could not present any data, decided to recommend the change to the section.

Almost suddenly, the session that began with cordial bows and fist bumps erupted into a heated argument.

Opposition Leader Dorji Wangdi supported the recommendation. He said with the extension the hotels and tour operators would get some work while the government puts together necessary preparations and facilities. “Otherwise, the small window opportunity these businesses could be lost and hurting their livelihoods.”

Kinga Penjor said that those in the tourism sector told the committee that the TCB has not consulted the Bill with them.

TCB board chairperson and Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji said the TCB has been working for the past year on this reform.

“Guides have been trained and are still being trained. VISA approval would be done within a week and banking is also being eased to facilitate seamless transactions,” he said. “We’re ready to begin this September.”

Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said that the Bill has taken into consideration the concerns of the stakeholders in the industry raised during the previous consultation meetings. “This Bill has the answers.”

Speaker Wangchuk Namgyel said that giving an extension until December 31, 2022 would mean having two Acts, the Tourism Levy Act 2020 and the Tourism Levy Act 2022, in effect at the same time which is not lawful.

More than a dozen MPs spoke for and against the committee’s recommendation. In the end, Speaker asked the floor to vote on the committee’s recommendation. The recommendation was rejected with only 13 MPs in favour of the extension.

Bartsham-Shongphu MP Passang Dorji proposed a change to Section 8 of the Bill.

The section reads: “The Competent Authority may provide for an exemption or concessionary levy rate on the applicable Sustainable Development Fee, subject to any conditions prescribed in the Rules..”

He said that the authority to change levy or anything related to money was only given to the Parliament of which the executive is a branch.

Lyonchhen Dr Lotay Tshering said that since the Act would be passed by the Parliament the competent authority would derive that power from the Act. “If one looks at it from another perspective, there is no need for every such change to be routed through the Parliament.”

The House passed all five chapters of the Bill as tabled by the Finance Minister.

Wangchuk Namgyel commended the committee for investing adequate time and scrutinising the Bill after exhaustive consultations.

He gave opportunity until the last MP who registered to speak and extended the session way past the time allotted to its deliberations and the tea break.

Other aspects of the Bill 

A tourist shall be liable to pay a tourism levy known as the Sustainable Development Fee of USD 200 per night, which may be revised by the Competent Authority from time to time.

The government will identify an apex agency as the custodian of the tourism policy which shall be responsible for the development, promotion and regulation of tourism in Bhutan.

The increase in the SDF is also in line with Bhutan’s ‘High Value, Low Volume’ tourism policy. The SDF, however, has exemption on day tourists, who do not travel beyond the first designated point, five-year-olds and below, and children between six and 12 years would receive the concessionary levy rate of 50 percent.

The competent authority shall implement the provisions of this Act; license, register or certify tourism service providers; and regulate and monitor the quality of tourism services including hotels.  The authority has access to information, documents and the places of business of tourism service providers at all reasonable time by providing prior written notice to the service provider as may be required. It will also determine, promulgate and enforce requirements and code of conduct for all tourism service providers.

The Act will supersede all previous notifications, circulars, guidelines, rules and regulations on tourism to the extent they are inconsistent with the provisions of the Act.