Visitors say Bhutan has to buck up to meet USD 200 a day expectations or will backfire 

Dechen Dolkar 

If tourists are to get the “high-value” experience, worth the USD 200 they pay for a day and the country wants to be a high-end destination, there is a lot to do on the grounds.

This is the observation those coming to Bhutan, including Bhutanese, are making although they have not complained officially. The complaints range from chatting air hostesses without greeting passengers, some of whom are the first point of contact to Bhutan,  to confusions and unintended harassment at the Paro International airport, which visitors feel would be reasons for quick backfire if not improved before the international borders are opened on September 23.

A Bhutanese coming home for a break from the US on July 24 said that services at the airport are not ready for high-end tourism. “Procedure for arrival is not user-friendly,” he said. “I am a Bhutanese used to our system, yet I was frustrated by the delay and the confusion,” he said.

A common complaint is on the Nu 500 Covid-testing fee. Visitors or those coming home are not informed about the fee, which had to be paid in Ngultrum in cash or electronically. “I had Thai Baht and INR, but they refused it and had to change,” said the Bhutanese passenger.

“The process is chaotic without any ground staff to  direct passengers. It took more than one hour to come out from the airport.”

The Bhutanese travelling with his family of five said that the confusion could make some people avoid the “Test and go” Covid-19 testing. “They put an ink mark on my finger before I was tested. My wife got it after she completed her test. This is confusing,” he said.

A foreigner visiting Bhutan for work was shocked with the crowd at the airport.  “The airport could be the super-spreader spot if services are not managed and improved,” he said. The foreigner who had not tested for Covid-19 said that if one passenger was positive, everybody would get the disease. “It is so crowded – skin to skin crowd – when we wait to be tested,” he said.

As passengers are put through the test and go regime, claiming baggage is another problem. With all passengers held for the Covid test, baggage are unloaded from the carousel  and dumped on the floors. “This is another place where people crowd to identify their belongings.”

The foreigner who had arranged a pick-up was shocked when he was asked the license and phone number of the driver besides asking to pay the fee in Ngultrums. “We can’t get Ngultrum outside Bhutan,” he exclaimed. Luckily he had enough from his last trip to Bhutan.

The visitor also said that after 24 hours of quarantine, authorities didn’t inform him about the test result although in the form it is mentioned that they would be contacted for the test results.

“I called the toll-free number 112 to ask about my test results the next evening,” the foreigner said. “At least the person on the phone was helpful and efficient.”

Feedback welcomed. Improvements made

Director general (DG) of the Department of Air Transport Authority, Karma Wangchuk, acknowledged the inconvenience passengers encountered at the arrival hall. He said that they are already working to improve services.

On July 28, the airport Covid taskforce conducted a meeting and made the process simpler and faster.

“We noticed that passengers were encountering inconvenience,” the DG said, adding that from July 28, the process and formalities are simplified and become systematic.

The department has identified counters for foreign exchange so that passengers and tourists can exchange money to pay for the Covid test. A second counter is identified for submitting forms and details for home quarantine and paying for the Covid test. The third is to collect the test kits and the last for submitting samples. “From there the passengers can directly go to the immigration counter and checkout,” he said.

Karma Wangchuk said that each counter will be managed by five to six de-suups to assist the passengers.

He said that they have already made changes to the infrastructure where tourists will experience something different from other international airports with art galleries.

Our vision is to improve services and provide the best services to the passengers,” he said. Karma Wangchuk said that now the staff at the frontline will be trained for service delivery like greeting, being polite and assisting the passengers.

The authority is also targeting to improve efficiency so that the last passenger will check out in 30 minutes.

Another initiative is to screen luggage as soon as it comes out from the aircraft and before it is loaded on conveyor belts to save time and congestion.

The authority is also working on health declaration forms for monkeypox and will made available online. Passengers wishing to travel to Bhutan have to declare before they embark the aircraft.

Passengers are also informed through SMS about their Covid-19 result whether it is negative or positive by 5 PM the next day.

The airport authority has also decided to create an agency where taxis will be arranged for passengers who do not have vehicles. Around four to five taxis will be identified. They will be tested every week and monitored.