Aum Pem has built a new house in her village in Phobjikha. Her old two-storeyed traditional house is converted into a homestay that caters to both locals and tourists. A daughter living and working in Australia had sent money to help them build the new house. Once potato-growing farmers, Pem and her husband live a comfortable life.
It could become better. Two more children are waiting to join their sister in Australia. There is a lot to do at her homestay. Pem complains about the cost of interiors and fittings. If her children can remit money back, she will be comfortable. But the priorities of the Bhutanese abroad are changing. Pem’s daughter bought land in Paro.
Bhutan had never relied on remittance, but of late it has become important. In 2020, it contributed 4.82 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). It was the highest remittance inflow so far. It sustains our convertible currency reserve which is in a freefall. With tourism, the highest earner of convertible currency, still recovering from the pandemic and the revised sustainable development fee making tourists think twice, remittance has suddenly become important for import-dependent Bhutan.
The inflow, unfortunately, is decreasing. Bhutan received a remittance of Nu 2.83 billion equivalent to USD 38.12 million (M), in the first half of this year. This is a decrease of Nu 1.22B from the same period last year. Last year, the remittance was Nu 4.03B or USD 54.72M.
Like our South Asian neighbours, remittance contributes to the growth of the economy. In recent years, Bhutanese are leaving the country in droves in search of better opportunities. Aum Pem and many alike feel that each household in Bhutan should have a member working in the US, Canada, the Middle East or Australia. It is what many call the real “gap narrower”.
Remittance has made a difference. As humble as Bhutanese are, we are talking about simple things like improving the electrical wiring in our ancestral house or buying flats and land in urban Bhutan. However, the concern is the declining amount from increasing number of Bhutanese living and working abroad.
We cannot impose regulations to make Bhutanese abroad send home money, but there are many other ways. Governments in our region are increasing schemes like cash bonuses on the value of money transferred to encourage remittance while some are making it easier for people to remit money. This might help to an extent, but if Bhutanese are finding it cheaper and easier to invest in both moveable and immoveable properties in the host countries, if they find sending money home cumbersome and mired in red tape, it will discourage them.
Times have changed and so have priorities. That Bhutanese will always return home is not true anymore. One in three Bhutanese leaving to study, work or live in a developed country will not return. The priority for many is seeking “permanent residence”. This means remittance will decline further.
We need strategies to turn this trend. What Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji, on his recent visit to Australia, did is a solution. The foreign minister, contrary to what many thought – asking the Australian government to stop issuing visas for Bhutanese – explored other types of visas where Bhutanese could work for a short while and return home. Holiday visa is popular with people from even developed nations. They come on a holiday for a few months, work and return.
Other short-term visas could help Bhutanese gain skills and return home to fill the skill gap. It will be hard to stop Bhutanese from leaving in search of better lives. It is easier, with the right policies, to make it beneficial to all.