Tourism: Tour agents in Phuentsholing are welcoming the online permit system that the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) recently introduced for regional tourists.

The owner of AD Tours and Travels in Phuentsholing, DB Gurung, said that tour agents will benefit. “Time will be saved,” he said.

DB Gurung also pointed out that the online permit system would improve the country’s image, as a lot of regional tourists return frustrated with the lengthy process of getting a permit. With the online system, regional tourists will not have to stand in queue anymore.

TCB operationalised the online permit system on January 26.

Proprietor of Ayu Tours and Travels, Choki Dorji, said that the system is a welcome move. “It will help me more because most of my clients are high-end regional tourists,” he said.

However, he added that the online permit system could be limiting for budget tourists. Using the online system means also having to stay in hotels that are certified by the council, he explained. He pointed out that many regional tourists can only afford to stay in uncertified small hotels.

Another travel agent in the town, requesting not to be named, shared similar concerns. “Budgeted clients will not pay for star-rated hotels,” he said.

The ICT official with TCB, Tashi Tenzin said the system will enhance the experience of regional tourists. “It is considering certain standards and safety issues tour operators should provide,” he said. “However, using the online system is optional as of now.”

Unlike the practice before, Tashi Tenzin said that regional tourists will not be required to process their route permit in Thimphu to go beyond the capital city. Route permits will be provided in advance through the online system.

Meanwhile, the online system will also entertain only tourists that can produce passports. A travel agency will also be required to provide a tour guide’s name and license during the application process.

While documents can be provided online, tourists will still have to visit the immigration office for the biometric procedure. Biometric systems will be installed in Phuentsholing and Paro.

Tours agents are concerned that the biometric service will not be available during holidays and weekends. Many said it would be preferable for the biometric system to be available throughout the week.

However, this would be dependent on the immigration office.

Phuentsholing is one of the major entry points for regional tourists in the country. The immigration office has so far dealt with hundreds of regional tourists crowding the immigration office. This problem should be solved by the online system, tour operators said. A bigger immigration office with standard facilities has also been constructed to provide better services for tourists.

A travel company can process permits for 150 regional tourists a day. This online system is being piloted for about three months. Regional tourists include visitors from Bangladesh, India, and the Maldives.

Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing