Dechen Dolkar  

The government will let tour operators bring in tourists at the old sustainable development fee (SDF) if they can prove that their bookings were confirmed before June 20, last year, applied for approval before mid-night July 28, 2022 and got rejected then.

This is the latest decision from the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Employment (MoICE) after many tour operators complained of favouring a few select tour operators.

Tour operators came to know that the government recently approved, after the July 28 deadline, Amen Bhutan Tours and Trek to bring more than 1,300 tourists, and Raewa Bhutan Tours, more than 300 tourists at the old SDF rate. Happiness Kingdom also got the approval to bring in around 1,500 tourists at the old SDF rate. The Happiness Kingdom already brought tourists in December last year and January this year.

Responding to the accusation, MoICE minister Karma Dorji said that these tour operators had booking confirmation before June 20, last year and they had received payments for chartered flights and tour packages. “They have also put up their application before July 28, last year,” he said.

The erstwhile TCB received more than 20,000 tourists’ applications from tour operators, validated 14,429 applications and approved 13,244 tourists to visit at the old SDF rate.

Lyonpo said that some of the tour operator applications were rejected as the confirmations were for groups and that their names and passport details were missing. “They have appealed to the Prime Minister to relook into the matter.”

The Parliament last year passed a decision that any tourists whose bookings were confirmed before June 20, 2022, will be allowed to come in at the old SDF rate.

Lyonpo said that, the decision of Parliament didn’t mention the requirement of name and passport details of tourists. “Department of Tourism (DoT) cannot overrule the parliament decision,” he said. The criteria on the requirement of names and passport details of tourists were made by the TCB.

Lyonpo also said that the criteria for applying for old SDF should be logical and see if it merits any change in the criteria, if there was a booking made before or on June 20, 2022.

“If we have proof of booking, any other travel agents can apply. It is not necessary to have a name and passport details,” Lyonpo said.

Lyonpo also mentioned that the ministry has directed DoT to reconfirm with airlines and banks if the payments were made. “Those tour operators have already received the payments.”

“This opportunity is not limited to three tour operators. The government will allow tourists to bring in tourists at old SDF rate if tour operators have booked before June 2022 and payment has already been made until December 31, this year” Lyonpo said, adding that it is not necessary to have name and passport details.

Lyonpo said that these tour operators have given details of the origin of chartered flights and they are supposed to bring in tourists in May, June and July this year. They cannot change the place of origin of chartered flights.


ABTO still skeptical

However, members of Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) are still skeptical of the government’s recent approvals. They stated that those approved tour operators have different sets of criteria and there is no date of travel requirement.

“For other tour operators who applied for old SDF then, the date of travel was a requirement,” a tour operator said.

ABTO has written a letter to MoICE on Monday stating that there has been a breach of rules while approving the old SDF to selected tour operators even after the deadline of July 28, 2022, and also without fulfilling the same strict criteria for other operators.

The association has also stated that many foreign tour operators lodged formal and informal complaints about these differentiated rates. The association states that it was an unfair advantage and the select tour operators are leveraging on the unfair discounts to actively market and steal foreign travel agents.

The association mentioned that they have compiled some of these complaints where tour operators have lost their clients and agents due to price differences and the credibility of Bhutan as a destination.


Govt. to revoke approval for unfair trade 

Lyonpo Karma Dorji said that the government will revoke the approval if they receive a written complaint from tour operators on stealing of other agents’ tourists. “The tour operators can formally lodge complaints to the department.” However, Lyonpo said that the ministry will not entertain complaints from outside Bhutan.

Lyonpo also said that those approved tour operators cannot market Bhutan on the old SDF rates to fill the chartered flights.

MoICE has written to Amen Bhutan Tours and Trek that as per their application, the tour operator should bring chartered flights, three each from Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia and two each from China and South Korea.

For Raewa Bhutan Tours the chartered flight should be from South Korea. The tourists travelling on chartered flights should be citizens of that country.

However, Lyonpo said that it will give some exceptions since tourists may be travelling from other countries.

The letter to two tour operators from the ministry states that tour operators are prohibited from carrying out any marketing or contacting any overseas travel agent (OTAs) of other Bhutanese tour operators for the purpose of filling chartered flights and disrupting the tourism business of other tour operators.  This is because, during the time of approval, the government was informed that their OTAs already had a tentative guests list as per their application.

If any written complaint is received from other Bhutanese tour operators with the authentication from their OTA, then the approval will be revoked.

Tour operators are required to submit the tentative chartered flight schedule with the list of tourists by May 1.

Amen Bhutan has also requested the ministry to operate chartered flights from Singapore. However, the government didn’t allow it since it was not in line with the conditions set. Singapore as the origin of chartered flights was not included in their application.