Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay on the evening of July 24 met with the Phuentsholing regional immigration officials and discussed ways to improve immigration services for regional tourists entering the country.

Establishing a token system, making Phuentsholing a tourist destination, and shifting focus on online permit were some of the issues discussed.

Stressing on the economic benefits regional tourists bring about and the increasing influx of regional tourists, mostly from neighbouring India, Lyonchhen said it was important to provide the best immigration services.

“Our objective is to provide them better and more efficient immigration experience,” he said.

Today, about 200 tourists from across the border enter the country beyond Phuentsholing, immigration officials said. During peak season about 1,800 regional tourists arrive in a day.

With such increase, immigration office in Phuentsholing has faced challenges for some years now. The government spent about Nu 11 million to upgrade the immigration office in 2017. Tourist counters was increased to 12 from two and work permit counters increased to 16 from four. The revamped infrastructure was also provided air-conditioners and more sitting arrangements.

Lyonchhen recommended that the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) and immigration discuss the details of a token system. Maximum advertisements and notices should be made, he added.

“With token system, tourists would not have to wait in long queues,” he said, adding that immigration officials can keep the tourists’ contact details and inform them accordingly.

Lyonchhen also recommended TCB and Phuentsholing Thromde to collaborate and come up with a brochure with details of Phuentsholing. While waiting for their turns, tourists can visit places for sightseeing.

Developing Phuentsholing town, as a tourist destination is important, he said.  The town should change to become a destination from the regular label of just being the gateway into Bhutan.

“TCB has to focus a bit more in Phuentsholing,” Lyonchhen said. “Rather than having the tourists head straight up to other places, we should also try to retain them here.”

Last year, of the 254,704 tourists who visited Bhutan, 183,287 were regional tourists. A majority of them are from India and enter the country from Phuentsholing.

Despite the upgraded infrastructure, peak season still remains a challenge for both tourists and Bhutanese tour operators. In the recent time, few tourists have also taken to social media to highlight their distress.

Meanwhile, TCB has also introduced an online permit system for regional tourists. With this, tourists would not require visiting the immigration office if they register and process their permits online.

A tour operator in Phuentsholing, Dorji said online system was a good idea. However, while TCB also encourages online permit, it just accepts the passport and limits the online usage.

“What if voter cards were allowed to use for online,” Dorji said, adding that most regional tourists do not have or carry passports.

Although there are chances to encounter fake cards but there should be some solution, the tour operator said. Allowing voter cards would attract more regional tourists and benefit tour agents and the country’s economy, he said

Dorji also said that the rush at the immigration office is more during peak seasons.

He said there are tourists routed through tour operators from across the border and Bhutanese operators in Phuentsholing. Bhutanese operators should be given a separate counter facility, he said, explaining tourists who come through operators from across the border are in large numbers and disturb those tourists steered by Bhutanese operators.

Another tour operator in Phuentsholing, Lungten said there are requirements in processing online permits. A tourist has to have a hotel reservation of a 3-star (and above) hotel, a guide, and should be routed through a travel agent. Most tourists look for budget hotels, he added.

“If these formalities were not there, I think most tourists would go online,” he said.

Lungten also said that problems of getting permits arise only during peak seasons such as May and October. Today, during off-season, regional tourists can easily avail the permits.

To facilitate regional tourists entering Bhutan, the Royal Monetary Authority (RMA) on July 6 opened an Indian Rupee (INR) exchange counter at the immigration office in Phuentsholing. All visitors and tourists from India can avail the exchange facility and convert their INR into Ngultrum. INR denomination up to Rupee 500 will be accepted.

Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing