… this was the consensus among both Bhutanese and Indian participants at a tourism seminar that concluded yesterday

Tourism: There is huge potential in connecting Bhutan and North East India as a high-end tourist destination given the commonalities and proximity.

This was the general consensus among participants at the Bhutan-North East India dialogue on high-end tourism that ended yesterday.

One of the speakers, director and principle advisor of New India Hospitality, Rakesh Mathur emphasised promoting sustainable tourism and diversifying its products accordingly.

“The North East has a lot to offer with abundant wealth and there is a lot that the region can also learn from Bhutan,” he said. “We’ve to see what we can give to nature and not take from nature.”

In tapping the potential, participants were also reminded of the hurdles that Bhutan faces as a high-end destination. The two-day discussions also touched upon a wide range of areas such as the challenges confronting the industry.

While Bhutanese tourism stakeholders highlighted the issue of unregulated regional tourists, policy makers questioned if Bhutan really was promoted as a high-end destination.

Participants from both the countries agreed that there was a need for proper management to maximise benefits from regional tourists especially in view of Bhutan being promoted as a high-end destination. In catering to the increasing regional tourists, participants said the carrying capacity needs to be considered besides the tremendous pressure on the infrastructure.

Yangphel tours and treks CEO Karma Lotey said it was important to regulate regional tourism and route them through Bhutanese ground handlers, among others.

He said that regional tourists driving their own vehicles overcrowd tourist sites. He also pointed out that often times several tourists share a single room and toilet putting pressure on the infrastructure.

“Guests from the region have to be treated well,” he said, calling for interventions in place before it’s too late.

Examples of how regional tourists are often cheated by tour operators who bring them to Bhutan were also provided. “When regional tourists want to see the tiger’s nest, as its far they are often taken to a similar looking monastery in Paro instead,” he said.

With eastern Bhutan now listed as a top 20 sought after destination in the world as per National Geographic, Karma Lotey said there are a lot of inquiries on eastern Bhutan. “A lot of collaboration can be made between North East and the eastern Bhutan. We can talk on how best we can work together,” he said.

Presenting an overview of the hotel industry, the hotel and restaurant association of Bhutan’s president Thinley Palden Dorji said that the high value, low impact policy is important and a unique way of how Bhutan has presented and packaged itself.

While it must be preserved, he said it was not without issues.

“There is a solution to the increasing regional tourists. The solution is simple, its regulation and implementation,” he said, recalling a discussion with budget hoteliers wherein he was told that in absence of regulations, they don’t have a choice but to cater to regional tourists in such a manner.

As much as Bhutan is known as a high value destination, the reality also is that it is the rates of hotels that define a high value destination to some extent, he said. That way, he said there is a lot Bhutan can learn from Sikkim.

“Our accommodation rate is generally lower than in Sikkim,” he said.

The vice chairman of Singye Group of Companies, Ugen Tshechup Dorji spoke about the need to review the tourism policy emphasising on undercutting that is highly prevalent in the industry today.

“When the government says that the basic concept of our development is Gross National Happiness, it’s important to review our tourism policy. We’ve to look at how to keep the happiness potion alive.”

The reality, he said was that Bhutan wants regional tourists but of high value and low impact.

“If that is the concept we are following, why do we have a parallel tourism policy?” Ugen Tshechup Dorji asked. “Bhutan is not sold as an exclusive destination but packaged with visit India and Nepal.”

Even big tour operators don’t sell Bhutan by itself, he said. “Most of our tourists pay more than USD 250 for Bhutan but how much does our tour operators get?” he asked, further emphasising the need to promote destination Bhutan in a major way.

“We just can’t sit back and say that Bhutan sells itself. Bhutan sells itself because someone else sells it for us and they take the cream while our tour operators are left with bare minimum,” he said.

Another speaker from India, Himatoz Zhimomi who is in-charge of public works development in Nagaland said that cross border tourism has huge scope while focusing on sustainable tourism rather than creating tourist products but celebrating what already exists.

Citing the example of Nagaland, he said their focus is more on sustainable community based tourism than building five-star hotels to cater to tourists. “There is so much complexity in tourism that I would hate to say tourism is the main steak of Naga society,” he said.

“Tourism is important but it will not be a priority for us,” he added, highlighting the need for proper regulation rather than promotion.

National Council (NC) member Pema Tenzin gave a background of the council’s review of the tourism sector and policy, its recommendation and resolutions.

He then questioned if Bhutan really was a high-end destination.

Highlighting the importance of regional tourists, Pema Tenzin also questioned the carrying capacity of the country. “We talk a lot of carrying capacity but we don’t know our maximum carrying capacity yet,” he said.

Presenting the prevailing scenario in the industry today Pema Tenzin said, “Ours is a sick industry … Is the industry really doing well? Is it time to do things differently?” he asked.

Pema Tenzin also said that the government has ambitious plan for the tourism industry in the 11th Plan but achieved none of it.

Retired secretary of the tourism ministry of India, MP Bezbaruh said that there was a possibility of connecting the North East region with Bhutan and Myanmar that is emerging as a new and a competitive destination.

“Imagination can create more destination,” he said, while also touching upon the need for a tourism master plan for a way forward without which it would be difficult to address Bhutan’s existing challenges

Economic affairs ministry’s chief of policy and planning division Sonam Tashi gave an outline of the policies, ground realities and concerns of the industry.

He highlighted the need to move beyond standardised itineraries while watching out for global tourism trends and competition in promoting Bhutan as a high-end destination.

“We are proud to say that Bhutan is a high value, low impact destination, but when we look at the structure of how tourism is organised, we are no different from any other country,” he said.

“Despite the existing concerns of international and regional tourists, the fact is that Bhutan is still an untapped destination,” he said.

The two-day seminar organized by TCB, Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research, and Asian Confluence was attended by experts and policy makers from both the countries.

Kinga Dema