Time to change gears

The number of tourists visiting Bhutan – in itself – may not be particularly significant. Our 3,020 tour operators hosted 315,599 tourists in 2019. But the implication is alarming. Besides being in high proportion to the population, the current numbers are already tipping the balance between high end tourism and mass tourism which spells doom for Bhutan as a global tourism hotspot.

Tourism was an important topic of discussion before the Covid-19 pandemic – with the negative trend becoming obvious. It is a key topic during the pandemic – being one of the most affected areas. And it will be a hot topic for discussion after the pandemic – a subject of focus for post-Corona recovery.

What exactly are we looking at?

In terms of infrastructure we have 159 “tourist” hotels – 129 “Three-Star”, 14 Four-Star, 16 Five-Star. In addition, we have 156 homestays and 665 budget hotels (all figures from TCB). We know there are actually more budget hotels that are not declared and that an unknown number of private buildings and houses rent rooms through Airbnb. Studies show that we have built far more than we need. And then there are hotel owners and staff, tour agents and guides, trekking teams, horsemen, suppliers, upward of 50,000 people directly employed.

The TCB approved Three-Star hotels and above, the Ministry of Economic Affairs licensed budget hotels, the global concept of Airbnb came without warning, some hotels were funded by illegal foreign money. Meanwhile the financial institutions provided generous loans for hotels, while the farming sector, tech industries, youth initiatives were neglected. The government approved incentives like tax holidays, sales and duty waivers for equipment including buses. The thromde turned a blind eye to a professional zoning plan for the capital city.

How did we get here? How did we allow a high end destination slide into mass tourism? How have we put up with poor governance, complacency, no coherence, and zero coordination? How do we keep missing the resounding reminders from the Throne?

We only woke up when high end tourists started calling out “goodbye Bhutan”, when loud Bollywood music echoed along the trails, when sacred pilgrimage sites were crowded with budget tourists who sat on the Lam’s seat for selfies, when tourists climbed on choeten roofs and motor cycles roared through virgin forests.

One of the major drawbacks of our system is that, even as we know how these decisions were made, there is no accountability. The industry is shaped by short term planning, wrong decisions, inability to deal with blatant corruption, and incompetence.

Things were sliding so fast that we even have to appreciate a Coronavirus crisis for giving us the reprieve to change gears. Short term personal or political interests must be acknowledged and we must wake up to our obligations to posterity.

It is time to do what should have been over the past years. Politicians, government employees, private businesses cannot keep leaving our blunders for our children to deal with.

We have the vision. We need tough decisions. Hotels and resorts, and lodges will have to close. Employees will have to relocate. That will have to be integrated in our overall planning process.

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