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This despite the fact that the earlier contract period has not been completed

Tourism: Giving in to the demands of the horse contractors in Paro, porter pony charges for tourism activities and services were revised on March 5, even though the three-year contract they had signed with the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) is yet to expire.

The demand for increase in rates came following several issues last trekking season, where most horse owners refused to cater to tourists, and instead chose to ferry sandalwood to Phari, Tibet given its lucrative returns.

Although illegal, sandalwood trade is rampant in Paro, which is close to the northern border of Phari, Tibet.  Without a road to Phari, horses are used to transport sandalwood across the border.

Despite signing a three-year contract in March 2013, horse contractors demanded a revision on the agreed rates of Nu 250 a day, besides a 10 percent commission and a 50 percent of the payment for their return journey.  The rates were last revised in 2011 from Nu 150 to Nu 250 a pony.

The new agreement was drawn on March 5, after a meeting between horse contractors and ABTO, in the presence of Tourism Council of Bhutan officials.

The revised rates are Nu 400 and Nu 500 a day for pack and riding ponies respectively.  The 10 percent commission and 50 percent of the payment for their return journey remains the same.  Each pack pony is designated 50kg.

The agreement states that the rates will not be increased until September 2017, and that any changes in the rates will be discussed six months prior to the expiry of the agreement.

The mules drop tourists off at the view point before reaching Taktshang monastery

Of some 23 trekking routes in the country, about 70 percent of the routes begin and end at Drugyel dzong in Paro.  There are about 20 horse contractors in Paro, and a majority of them are based in Tsento gewog.

During the trekking season last autumn, tour operators complained of breach of contract by horsemen, when they moved to ferry sandalwood.  Horsemen not showing up for the journey despite prior bookings while those, who did, demanded a higher rate were some of the issues tour operators faced last year.

Tour operators raised the issue with the association to sort this issue out before the tourist season began this year.

Horse contractors said each pony was worth Nu 10,000 to 15,000 a day when engaged in sandalwood business against Nu 250 a day they earned from tourism services.  For instance, a five-day trek would earn a horseman only Nu 1,250 a pony, while for the same duration, they earned Nu 10,000 to 15,000 transporting sandalwood to the northern border.

With such issues, horse contractors said they demanded, on behalf of horse owners, that the rate be increased.  Horse contractors are hopeful that the revised rates will be able to attract more horse owners to cater to tourism services.

A horse contractor Nima Tshering, 26, from Damchena said he takes only 10 percent commission a horse a day.  He has about 50 mules that he hires during the trekking season every year. “The revision was timely as the maintenance cost like horse shoe, feed and other accessories also increased,” he said. “Even the daily wage of horseman increased to Nu 500 from Nu 300 today making it difficult for us to sustain.”

Another horse contractor, who has been in business for about 26 years, Chencho Dorji, 46, from Drukgyel said he was happy with the new rates. “This will encourage horse owners in villages to work together with tour operators and provide better services,” he said.

However, tour operators said they were not happy with the new rates.  The rates, they said, were proposed by horse contractors and forced upon them.

“We didn’t have much say as they (horse contractors) wanted to discontinue the services if we didn’t agree to it,” a tour operator said, who felt tour operators were at the mercy of horse contractors.

There’s a misconception that tour operators earn more from treks, he said. “We earn more from cultural tours despite the same daily minimum tariff.”

Tour operators said for a five-night trek, they charge a client for five nights while for the horses they bear the round trip charges of 10 days, even though the horses just drop the clients and leave.

Another tour operator said his company stopped promoting Lunana trek following similar issues with horsemen a few years ago. “If such issues continue, it’ll not be long before tour operators stop promoting treks and focus on cultural tours instead,” he said.

ABTO’s executive director Sonam Dorji said they now have a base price for porter pony services with the revised rates. “There is commitment from horse owners as well to henceforth adhere to the agreement,” he said.

By Kinga Dema

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