ABTO think tank group comes up with recommendations based on current tourism situation

Tourism: The Tourism Council of Bhutan Secretariat (TCBS) could be integrated as a department under the Ministry of Economic Affairs so that it can be governed within the government’s broader economic development, growth framework, and for better inter-governmental coordination.

This is among the recommendations that the think tank group that the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) formed by the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) highlighted in its report that was submitted to the government recently.

Titled “Bhutan Tourism Review and Recommendations 2016,” the think tank reviewed and analysed the current tourism situation and came up with several recommendations based on their findings.

It states that TCBS, as a department under the ministry, may be able to position tourism policy within the government’s broader economic development, growth framework, inter-governmental coordination and for recognising that tourism can play a significant part for a productive economy.

“The ministry could provide strategic direction and oversight of the tourism sector through establishment of appropriate institutional structure within the context of good governance,” it states.

Establishment of a tourism ministry was also proposed along with culture and environment. The move, according to the report, will not only provide the importance to the sector but also have proper institutional and management system in place.

The report states that given the gap between the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) and TCBS, the secretariat functions independently without proper checks and balances in place. The report states that any gaps between TCB and TCBS result in problems not being resolved as it is left to the senior management level at TCBS with no higher empowered level to submit the numerous issues that need higher approvals.

The report also highlighted that in absence of an intermediary committee and the inability of the TCB to meet on a regular basis, the issues and concerns of tour operators and the tourism industry does not get deliberated as desired.

“This has also led to implementation of many ad hoc activities merely through note sheets approved by TCB chair or vice chair,” the report states. “This has undermined the full mandate of the Tourism Council and restricted wider and broader participation of TCB members in the decision making process.”

It has also been recommended that the government retain the existing tariff system. The report states that within the existing tariff system, if proper governance and management system, and infrastructure is put in place, the issue of seasonality and spread of tourism activities can be effectively addressed without diluting or undermining the principle of ‘high value, low impact’.

In addition, the think tank also recommended waiver of the USD 65 a day royalty for the entire duration for tourists entering through Samdrupjongkhar and Nganglam in the east. It was also proposed that there should be no charges for children under the age of five and below and no royalty for children of 6-12 years besides reduction of royalty by 50 percent for tourists after five days, among others.

Other options proposed under the tariff are doing away with the all-inclusive package tariff but retaining royalty during the lean season, tariff including royalty to be waived for tour leaders of a group with a minimum of 10 and above. It has also been proposed that Gelephu, Manas, Nganglam, Phuentsholing and Samdrupjongkhar be made royalty-free zones.

Another recommendation was the establishment of a tourism development bank to boost promotion and development. The report states that the bank is necessary to institute a separate banking service for the tourism industry.

It was suggested that the bank could be a division under Bhutan Development Bank Ltd and that such banking services would not only benefit people in the industry but also attract both local and foreign investors and streamline tourism investment requirements in the country.

With increasing number of tourist arrivals, tourism suppliers and service providers are bound to encounter numerous issues among themselves and with the clients. Hence, it was recommended that these issues be amicably resolved through proper arbitration and by having a mediation system in place.

“Arbitration can be used to settle alleged breaches of contract or negligence between consumers and service providers,” the report states. “Such schemes would allow dispute settlement without going to court. This would be speedier, less formal and would cost less than hiring lawyers.”

The think tank group also recommended setting up of criteria to become a tour operator. In this regard, the team submitted options such as setting minimum standards for tour operators based on specialisation such as adventure, nature, culture, trekking and sports, among others.

Development of guidelines for tour operations for general tourism and specialised services were also recommended.

The team also proposed the establishment of an award system in the industry to recognise individuals, companies and destinations for their contribution towards promotion and development of tourism in the country.

Besides recognising and publicly acknowledging contribution of individuals or teams, such an award system is expected to be an important tool to reinforce policy directions. Awards could be directed to encourage desired trends like recognising companies promoting or investing in less-visited areas.

Other recommendations include improvement in the existing marketing and promotion activities, tackling the increasing regional or non-tariff tourists, tax incentives, infrastructure development and waste management, among others.

Kinga Dema