… officials and hoteliers expect more casual visitors

Rinzin Wangchuk 

Around 89 casual people visited Phuentsholing on the first day after the government waived the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) of Nu 1,200 starting from April 14.

Phuentsholing Drungpa Karma Jurmi said that the drungkhag is creating awareness through their Indian counterparts to encourage more people across the border to visit the town.

“It is a good indication for Phuentsholing to receive more visitors in due course of time,” he said.

The data were not available on how many visitors had come for night halt in Phuentsholing over the past five days.

Immigration officials at the pedestrian terminal in Phuentsholing said that it was difficult to segregate day and casual visitors. “We can figure out only through their IT system which is manned at the headquarters in Thimphu,” an official on duty said.

He also said that some SDF-paying tourists, who visited Thimphu and Paro, returned to Phuentsholing within 24 hours. “They exited once and then come back as casual visitors. “May be they didn’t get enough time to visit and experience Phuentsholing town,” the official said.

The casual visitors including tourists can visit Phuentsholing town and nearby areas but cannot go beyond Rinchending Integrated Checkpost.

Meanwhile, the number of Indian tourists paying SDF is slowly increasing, according to officials at the tourism desk, located within the pedestrian terminal. Over the past four days from April 14 to 17, more than 670 tourists entered Phuentsholing, which receives an average of 160 Indian tourists a day.

However, the majority of the visitors hardly spend a night in the border town, according to local tourist guides.  One Thimphu-based guide who came to receive his visitors from Phuentsholing said that the Indian tourists, mostly from Mumbai, prefer to visit Thimphu, Paro and Punakha.

Hoteliers are optimistic

The hoteliers in Phuenstsholing welcome the removal of SDF for casual vistors and tourists visiting the border towns.

“Such move will definitely bring some positive impacts for the hoteliers which have been struggling to survive even after the Covid-19 pandemic,” a senior manager of Gadhen Hotel said.

According to Lotus Villa’s proprietor, they expect to increase the number of visitors in the coming months. “We may not feel the immediate impact but there will be opportunities for our hoteliers to sustain,” she said.

Both Gadhen Hotel and Lotus Villa are rated as Three Star hotels. There are 12 Three Star hotels in Phuentsholing today.

The other smaller hotels like Sinchula and Hotel Pelri have been hit badly due to lack of visitors from outside. “Before the pandemic, our 15 hotel rooms used to be fully occupied most of the time and room charges were ranging from Nu 1,000 to Nu, 1,500,” the opertor of Sinchula Hotel said. “Now my hotel occupancy has dropped drastically.  Even then I brought down room charges to Nu 1,000 per night.”

When SDF was not there, they used to get visitors from West Bengal, Assam, Shillong and Sikkim, according to hoteliers in Phuentsholing. “With the levying of SDF Nu 1,200 per person per night, no one is coming to invest here,” one hotelier said.

Phuenstsholing Thrompon Uttar Kumar Rai said that it is too early to comment that visitors from across the border and beyond will come to Phuentsholing for 24 hours. “We have to wait and see the impact,” he said.