Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing

Among the many important topics that Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering highlighted while meeting the business community of Phuentsholing on September 20, it was “reforms” the country has seen in recent times that was given the most importance.

Given the struggles the country had to face during the pandemic and an exemplary success in controlling it, Lyonchhen pointed out that Bhutan has entered a transition phase when reforms are a must.

“Whatever reforms we have today is for each one of us,” he said. “Some may accept it, others may not. But it is for the betterment of the country’s future.”

A representative from the hotel association raised concerns about budget hotels losing business as they are not allowed to entertain tourists.

The Prime Minister said, “The rule is not new. It was already there; only the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB)-certified hotels would be able to cater to tourists.”  The government will support this certification and upgrade the hotels, he added.

However, if the budget hotels do not qualify for TCB certification, the government will help in other ways such as converting the infrastructure into apartments.

The hotel association’s representative also raised concerns about levying SDF on regional tourists while staying in Phuentsholing.

Lyonchhen said the SDF reforms are not aimed at making profits and that they were made after thorough study and deliberations by the experts. The objective, he said, is to make the country different as a tourist destination.

“People from other parts of the world, including the regional tourists, must think about visiting Bhutan at least once in their lifetime,” he said. “We have to make our country like that; it has to be clean and safe.”

The Prime Minister also underlined as an example how a reform such as Singapore banning chewing of gum can change the world’s perspective. If Bhutan must succeed like other successful countries across the world, he said it was the right time for reforms and change.

Another important topic the Prime Minister mentioned was the financial status of the country in terms of hard currency and INR reserves. He said that recent reforms as suspension of vehicle imports and loans were all due to increasing outflow of reserves.

“Stopping the import of vehicles is saving us Nu 5 billions in a year,” he said.

Giving loans is also a problem because the country’s economy is import-driven and loans will increase import, which means draining out of reserves.

Some of the South Asian neighbours such as Bangladesh and Nepal have already started such economic measures.

The Prime Minister, who is on a tour of the southern dzongkhags to inspect the preparedness of entry points, said that with pedestrian terminal in place now, Phuentsholing also must become a different town. Such terminals will also be constructed in Samtse, Gelephu, and Samdrupjongkhar, he added.

Elaborating on the point, Lyonchhen discussed concerns on the country’s fertility rate (1.8), decreasing population, and increasing number of Bhutanese going to Australia in recent times.

Although the government is worried, it is better for them to go to Australia right now, he said, adding that Bhutanese are contributing through remittances, which is benefitting the country’s reserves.

“Ultimately, they will return financially sound and with better exposure,” he said.

“While the government will never stop Bhutanese heading towards Australia for better opportunities, it is the government’s duty and responsibility to ensure the environment and system within the country is favourable that no one would leave.”