Bhutan has come a long way since it opened up its doors to tourism in 1974. Untill 1998, the sector fuctioned under the government. Tour operator and guides were government employees.
Today, the tourism industry has become the second largest revenue contributor in the country.
Last year, 62,733 international tourists visited Bhutan, which translates to total revenue of Nu 4.719 billion.
When tourists arrive in the country, the first thing they see is not the pristine mountains or serene environment. They see the guides. Exploring a country through books is not enough as there are landmarks, signage and tracks changing constantly and requires experienced guides. Currently, there are over 1,000 licensed and active tour guides in the country.
Recognising the important role these groups of people play, Guide Association of Bhutan (GAB) was founded in February 27, 2009 and was officially registered with Civil Society Organisation Authority in June 2010.
GAB started with 67 members. The organisation has now grown with over 500 members.
Guides being the eyes through which tourist sees Bhutan, GAB aims to create a platform for guides to voice their concerns and to create the highest degree of professionalism.
Founder and chairman of GAB, Garab Dorji, said that with the High Value, Low Impact tourism strategy of Bhutan, such a platform for guides was necessary. “We go all over Bhutan, talk to people and we come from all over Bhutan handling one of the most delicate business, human being.”
He said that with the organisation it is easier for the guides to voice their concerns and to train them. “If you want to file a case, it is much easier for the guide to talk through the association.”
For the welfare of the guides, GAB aims to up-scaling training. It does not, however, mean that GAB will train new guides as it would go against the interest of GAB. “GAB is there to protect the livelihood of guides, not to produce more guides. Once the guides are trained and become part of us, we upscale their training so that they become more professional.”
Garab Dorji said that if there are more guides, it would be difficult for them to find jobs and that affects the professionalism of the guides.
Even if the non-members have issues, they can approach GAB for help. “We mediate, support and talk on their behalf, but we do not provide them with training.” he said. “GAB is there for all the guides, but when it comes to benefit only members will benefit directly. We take non-members only when our members are not enough to fill the gap.”
Garab Dorji said that although the association has enough resources, it faces challenges in terms of funding. Currently the association receives funding mainly from Tourism Council of Bhutan, project proposals, donations, and fund raising programmes.
The association also faces the issue of lack of good instructors and maintaining the quality of guide. “We cannot compromise on the quality of guide and the number of guides that are being produced. We do not need more than 1,000 guides. Quality could suffer otherwise.”
The government is investing and giving importance to the growth of tourism industry. GAB in its own way is also contributing towards the development of the sector by ensuring the welfare of one of its essential component, guides and building professionalism.