Yangchen C Rinzin 

What ought rethinking the future of Bhutan’s tourism to mean? If tourism must be reopened, the argument is based on perspective of sustainable tourism. From the perspective of tour guides, it is about improving quality of guides.

These were some of the views shared by five panellists from the various backgrounds during the bi-monthly panel discussion on rethinking the future of tourism in Bhutan.

After tourism closed owing to Covid-19 pandemic since March, Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) has initiated several interventions under rethink, react and recover strategy.

One of the panellists, Phub Zam, president of Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that pandemic hit the global tourism sector hard. The question, she said was how to open it at the earliest.

“I am a business person, and my point of view on rethinking could differ from a sustainability perspective. TCB must adopt models to bring tourists physically,” she said. “For us, the economy has been affected by this pandemic. So this is where I would like to concentrate, to bring back the economy.”

She added that tourism must restart even for smaller groups and that the government must do away with the sustainable development fee (SDF). “We must realise that the whole world is affected, which means those coming to Bhutan would find SDF expensive.”

While practising safety protocols was easy, she reiterated that maintaining 21-day mandatory quarantine would not encourage tourists to visit Bhutan.

However, sustainable tourism advisor/specialist, Dr Karma Tshering, argued that Covid-19 was a blessing in that it was time to rethink about sustainable tourism. “This is a perfect time to reflect why people choose Bhutan as a travel destination, and it is because of our culture, forest, conducive environment. Covid-19 has given us time to pause and work on discouraging mass tourism by not replicating another country.”

Guide Garab Dorji said that rethinking the future of tourism should also be about improving quality of guides. “We’ve almost 5,000 guides today when we actually require about 1,500 guides. It is about time TCB should raised the standard of Bhutanese guides.

Garab Dorji added that it was worrying that while Bhutan receives on an average of tourist aged 58 and above while 70 percent of Bhutanese guides are below 25 years old.  “Guides are the face the country. We’ve talked so much on the quality of tourism. We must now talk about the quality of guides.”

Garab is, however, not in favour of doing away with the SDF.

Blogger and photographer Yeshey Dorji said that the focus should be on how to maximise arrivals of tourists and to “focus” on the cash cow that is bringing tourists from the west instead of promoting regional tourism or charging SDF. “We must reorient,” he said. “Let’s not be paranoid of tourists. We must allow tourists to come in now and reopen tourism.”

The panellists agreed that it was time to focus on the smaller groups of tourists, which would also encourage tour operators.

TCB’s director-general, Dorji Dhradhul, said that the pandemic had given time to rethink, remodel and recover and that post Covid-19 tourists might prefer to travel in small group or individual.

“Fewer tourists means less demand for service, fewer guides, and hotels. It’ll be guided by the number of tourists arriving. So, and this is a serious issue.”