Tour operators and guides play a role in ensuring safety of tourists in Bhutan

Tourism: The safety of all visitors to Taktsang monastery in Paro including Bhutanese is a priority for the government.

Calling it an unfortunate incident, lyonchhoen Tshering Tobgay, at the meet-the-press session yesterday, said the recent death of a Thai tourist in Taktsang has been painful for everyone.

As a popular tourist hotspot with thousands of people visiting Taktsang including the locals, a few such mishaps are bound to happen, lyonchhoen said.

“Be it Bhutanese or tourists, safety is important,” lyonchhoen said. “Tour operators and guides play an important role in ensuring safety of tourists not just in Taktsang but all places a tourist visits.”

Concerning the safety at Taktsang, lyonchhoen said the government had done their best by widening the path cutting through the cliffs wherever possible and fixed railings where necessary.

“We will continue to do so as safety of visitors is a priority for us,” lyonchhoen said and cautioned all Bhutanese traveling to various destinations on pilgrimage this winter to be safe.

The death of the 54-year-old Thai tourist after she fell off the path to Taktsang monastery has led to discussions in the social media with people questioning the safety of tourists visiting Bhutan after paying the minimum daily tariff of USD 250 a day.

About 90 percent of the dollar-paying tourists visit Taktsang, a popular pilgrimage site for Bhutanese. Three fatalities occurred at Taktsang last year. In 2013, a 52-year-old Swedish woman slipped and fell about 25m while many accidents on the trail to Taktsang go unreported.

Ensuring safety of tourists, according to Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators’ executive director Sonam Dorji, is a shared responsibility.

“There is a need for standards and professionalism right from regulation to training and in the fields,” he said.

Since tourism is still young, after being privatised, a lot needs to be done, Sonam Dorji said. “We are in a better foothold of grasping issues of other regions and given our late developmental state, we are in a better position to learn,” he said.

Tour operators said even pony service providers in Paro should be mindful of the safety of tourists. The pony service providers earn about Nu 1,000 to Nu 1,500 for a two-hour ride to and from Taktsang.

There are also cases where pony service providers rush back to earn as much as they can, according to guides and tour operators, and often result in accident and injuries to tourists who are walking the trail.

A majority of the international or dollar-paying visitors to Bhutan are 45 years and above.

A tour operator said that during the peak season, about 800 visitors visit Taktsang.

“There are not enough guides to cater to all tourists and each tourist walks at their own pace making it difficult for guides to be there for all,” he said. “The railings also need to be improved further.”

Another tour operator said that its becomes the responsibility of tour companies to programme their itinerary in such a way that clients are informed of the hazards prior to their travel.

“We have been doing that and it worked so far,” he said, adding that it was important for all clients to be insured. “Most tourists who visit the country are insured because of the age factor.”

Going by media reports, at least one tourist dies in Bhutan every year despite support and precautionary measures in place. The cause of deaths has been either altitude sickness or medical condition for most international tourists, while most regional tourists died from mishaps especially at the Mebartsho in Bumthang.

Records also show that on an average, about four international tourists are evacuated every year from the mountains while on treks due to altitude sickness.

By Kinga Dema