Work to take tourism to the top has begun with a vigour the country has not seen in the past.
A two-day national tourism conference was successful in bringing together everyone who depend on it to take stock of the issues confronting the industry. The chairmanship has changed and a tourism development board constituted to put in motion the decision-making processes and to tap the sector’s potential. Tourism, which does not have a policy but a guiding principle of high value–low impact, is now part of our foreign policy.
These developments are progressive and should be sustained.
For far too long, we have been obsessed with numbers and cashed in on the brand Bhutan image without doing much to value its vast potential in sustaining the economy. The practice of undercutting devalues the high-end destination the country is promoted as but tour operators, big and small, indulge in it without any qualms. The institutionalisation of weak monitoring and poor implementation of rules by the tourism council has left these players to sell an experience of Bhutan at half the daily tariff. So arrivals soared, not the revenue. For the council, the royalty generated was enough.
If the suggestions taken from the conference are taken on board and implemented, the tourism industry would undergo a massive reform. This requires a major overhaul in every aspect of the sector. Seeking feedback to cut undercutting from tour operators who are as guilty of undercutting would not bring about a change. Allowing airlines to open their own travel agencies to sell tickets is another blow to travel agencies that mushroom over night and close shop next week. While several new hotels are opening across the country and the council mandating three star accommodations for all tourists, visitors have started staying in alternative accommodations offered online through airbnb.
With or without a policy, the industry has not kept pace with the change the sector is whizzing through. We increased the arrivals and expanded the definition of a tourist but forgot to develop products and services to cater to the increased number. Even before we tried to decrypt the meaning of high value-low impact rhetoric, regional tourists are swamping touristy dzongkhags. Where its benefits were to be elastic, spreading across communities that adorn the brochures, banners and websites of tour companies, tourism has remained a western phenomenon.
For a sector that takes years to develop roadside amenities, reforming the industry to make it the top revenue generator would not be without challenges. While it has begun to work on reforming the industry, the tourism council and government has called for suggestions to take tourism to the top. A social media page or a website to collect views would help in making this a consultative process. Conversations with communities in the local government could be as enriching.
As the hydropower sector languishes in delays, the tourism sector’s readiness to catapult to the top appears promising. This means there is work to do.