Tourism: Tourism is a national source of wealth. However, despite plentiful potential for its development in all pockets of the country, many dzongkhags have not been able to reap the direct benefits of the second largest industry that has been rapidly growing over the years.

When the government came to power three and a half years back it promised to promote balanced regional development in the sector. More specifically, the government was supposed to address the issue of seasonal fluctuations in arrivals and ensure that at least 20 percent of tourists visit eastern dzongkhags for “uniform distribution of benefits” from the sector.

It was also said that the government would diversify tourism products to ensure there is regional spread. But even as the government is nearing completion of its tenure, little has been achieved.

According to the statistics released recently by the National Statistics Bureau, a majority of tourists arrive in October, May and December. The five dzongkhags of Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, Wangdue and Bumthang combined saw 162,309 arrivals last year, while the remaining 15 dzongkhags saw only 23,765 visitors.

Among the dzongkhags that received the least number of tourists are Dagana (14), Zhemgang (298), Tsirang (10), Sarpang (233), Pemagatshel (68) and Samtse (3).

The total tourist arrivals, both international and regional, continue to grow and reached 155,121 last year. The revenue from the tourism sector increased from about Nu 136 million (M) in the late 1980s to Nu 4.3 billion last year.

However, the industry’s growth continues to be concentrated only within the dzongkhags that are traditionally tourist-rich.

Chairman of National Council‘s economic affairs committee Sonam Dorji said the main responsibility to develop tourist sites and build infrastructure lies with the government. “I can’t grossly say the government hasn’t done anything. But at the same time there is no visible development on the ground,” he said.

He is of the view that taking tourists to warmer dzongkhags during the winter months would help address the problem of seasonal fluctuation in arrivals. “Our government must take steps immediately, otherwise nothing seems to be happening in some dzongkhags,” he said.

Each dzongkhag, he said has its unique selling point that needs to be branded with help from the government. Dagana, for instance he said, is rich in cultural heritage and has ancient trekking routes that can be revived.

Member of economic development and private sector committee of the National Assembly, MP Dorji Wangdi, said internationalisation of domestic airports is vital for balanced regional development in tourism. He said there have been however, significant delays in restarting flights to domestic airports, including Yonphula in Trashigang.

“By now those airports should be operating in full swing. The government has had enough time to restart domestic flights,” he said “What matters for tourists is time,” he added.

The  delay in the ongoing widening works on the East-West highway and the suspension of Yonphula airport, Dorji Wangdi said has affected tourism in the east. “The widening works should have been managed in better ways,” he said.

According to Dorji Wangdi, only between 20 to 25 percent of the widening works has been completed so far. “The government has taken steps back in tourism development. In fact, tourism in the east has deteriorated,” he said.

The seven dzongkhags of Lhuentse, Mongar, Pemagatshel, Samdrupjongkhar, Tashiyangtse, Trashigang and Zhemgang combined saw 9,199 arrivals last year.

More delays in the widening works, he warned, will further slow down the sector’s growth in the region.

While internationalising domestic airports may take some time, observers say the government can improve tourism related infrastructures along with reliable road and air transport networks.

The government’s manifesto also states that the government would streamline tourism in the country by adopting a Bhutan Tourism Bill. It said it would develop “dzongkhag tourism development plans” and identify new tourist destinations.

Perhaps, it’s impossible to spread tourists equally in all dzongkhags, but the government can do more to minimise the disparity. Lack of infrastructures like hotels and good roads are among the impeding factors.

Chairman of the Assembly’s economic development and private sector committee, Novin Darlami, said the government is looking at spreading tourist arrivals. However, the committee, which presented a report in the recently concluded Assembly had no mention of this aspect although it presented recommendations on issues such as streamlining regional tourists.

The government did implement a few initiatives such as the Bhutan-Thailand Friendship Offer in 2014, which allowed Thai nationals to visit Bhutan by paying only USD 65 per person per night. The year 2015 was also declared as Visit Bhutan Year.

Today tourism is recognised as one of the “five jewels” of the economy. However, none of these initiatives are linked with balanced regional development.

According to the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) a “comprehensive tourism development plan” for eastern dzongkhags has been developed. Improving tourist related infrastructures along with a reliable road and airport network has been covered in the eastern (travel) circuit plan, it is said.

Home-stays are being developed in some dzongkhags in the east to diversify tourism product and address the issue of lack of hotels, according to the TCB. However, NC member Sonam Dorji said similar developments are not happening in other dzongkhags that receive fewer tourists.

Zhemgang is considered one of the dzongkhags that has huge tourism potential. However, MP Dorji Wangdi said the industry has not taken off although the number of tourists willing to visit the dzongkhag are increasing.

Zhemgang, which he said is rich in inherent flora and fauna, offers huge tourism potential. He said while Zhemgang is popular for bird watching, Manas is the best natural spot for rafting.

MP Dorji Wangdi said while restrictions in Manas is “understandable”, the government should allow tourists freely till Panbang. “A lot of people are complaining that it’s difficult for tourists to reach the region due to government restrictions,” he said.

Meanwhile, an overall budget of Nu 113.39M has been allocated for the tourism sector in the fiscal year 2016-17. Out of this, the government has earmarked Nu 500,000 for facilitation of development and promotion of tourism in Dagana and Tsirang.

This is the only dzongkhag specific allocation of tourism budget for the fiscal year.

Prospective investors say they would be willing to build hotels and develop tourist sites if the government comes up with concrete plans and packages.

“For instance, the government should announce fiscal incentives for construction of hotels and other infrastructures,” a local leader from Tsirang said. He also said that the government should put in place a policy that will encourage tourist flow to less well off dzongkhags.

MB Subba