To protect and promote the rights and interests of pilgrims, the Package Pilgrimage Regulation, 2017 was launched in Thimphu on November 24.

The regulation, which comes into immediate effect mandates code of conduct and responsibilities of pilgrimage operators, pilgrims and other relevant agencies such as Road Safety and Transport Authority, Royal Bhutan Police, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs along with procedure during emergency, offence and penalty.

If a pilgrimage operator fails to provide travel insurance plan for the pilgrim, he or she is liable a fine of Nu 5,000 a pilgrim, and if an operator fails to provide options for pilgrimage package, he or she has to pay a fine of Nu 5,000. Failure to provide proper accommodation and meal plan would result in refunding double the value of the accommodation or meal to the pilgrim.

Economic affairs minister, Lekey Dorji, said that the regulation encompasses three broad areas of rights of pilgrims, standard of services and contingency plan. “The Package Pilgrimage Regulation, 2017 empowers both the pilgrim and tour operators equally. Pilgrims have the right to demand for services equal to payment,” he said. “Tour operators are provided necessary assistance in times of exigencies by relevant agencies.”

The regulation applies to any licensed pilgrimage operator handling package pilgrimage for Bhutanese pilgrims outside Bhutan, the pilgrim who has signed a package pilgrimage agreement with a pilgrimage operator, and to package pilgrimage covering a period of more than 24 hours or if overnight accommodation is provided.

Package Pilgrimage Regulation, 2017 states that to operate pilgrimage outside of Bhutan, minimum standards such as a valid licence issued by a competent authority, insurance plan, package pilgrimage such as duration of visit, places of visit, and total price of package pilgrimage, accommodation, guide service, and meal plan are required. Transport service, additional charges, cancellation and replacement of package pilgrimage, package pilgrimage agreement, and pre-departure briefing are also required.

Officiating Director General of Office of Consumer Protection (OCP), Gopal Pradhan, said the regulation comes at the time when increasing pilgrims are availing services of tour operators who at times lure with false promises. “In the past, there were incidents of harrowing journey, duping, neglects, cheating, and breach of promises experienced by the Bhutanese pilgrims. Without regulations, the Bhutanese pilgrims were the ultimate losers.”

He said that OCP in the coming weeks would conduct orientation workshops for pilgrimage operators in Phuentsholing.

Karma Cheki