Some are marketing Bhutan on old SDF rate after getting approval

Dechen Dolkar 

Tour operators who had bookings confirmed to visit Bhutan before June 20, 2022 could bring in tourists by December 31 this year at the old Sustainable Development Fee of USD 65. The decision helped many operators bring in tourists who had already confirmed their visit.

However, the government approved three operators, Amen Bhutan Tours, Bhutan Raewa Travels, and Happiness Kingdom to bring in more than 3,000 tourists at the old SDF rate even after passing the deadline to apply for the old SDF rate.

The government approved 1,500 tourists for Happiness Kingdom, 1,300 tourists for Amen, and 300 for Raewa recently. Happiness Kingdom has already brought in tourists in December 2022 and January this year. The agent chartered 12 flights with Bhutan Airlines.

However, it was learnt that tour operators who got the approval to bring in tourists at the old SDF rates were recently marketing for tourists after the government approval.

This had not gone well with other operators who are complaining of unfairness, misuse of authority and the deadline.

A tour operator who came to know about another operator marketing said that the approvals given to two tour operators did not specify any confirmed dates or operation sectors.

Tour operator said, Amen Bhutan has only recently started selling and promoting Bhutan travel packages in Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia on the old SDF after getting the approval from the government.

It was learnt that one of the operators was promoting tour packages to Bhutan at USD 200 for one to two  groups and USD 180 for more than three groups till December 31.

“Where is the fairness when we sell for USD 200 a day,” he said, requesting not to be named.  “Many of our confirmed clients have already cancelled and switched to them. This has negatively impacted our business and also led to revenue loss for the government,” a tour operator mentioned.

Another tour operator said that they have already received the advance payment on the old SDF before June 2022. However, the department didn’t approve just because the names of guests and passport numbers were not mentioned.

“In the earlier criteria, there was no requirement of chartered flight bookings and suddenly, it was approved based on booking of chartered flights,” a tour operator said.

Another tour operator questioned why the DoT rejected their bookings during the validation after the deadline of July 28, 2022 if those who got approved are selling Bhutan on the old SDF rate today. “The government should have given equal opportunity to all the tour operators and not only to selected tour operators.”

The Department of Tourism (DoT) notified tour operators on July 13, last year, to submit information and documents related to bookings that were confirmed on or before 20th June, 2022. The notification stated that the duly completed form must be submitted by 11:59 PM, on July 28, 2022. Applications submitted after the deadline would not be considered.

The applications were validated based on visa application, name of tourist with passport details, booked air ticket and payment made.

The General Manager of Happiness Kingdom, Pema, said that the last chartered flight  with tourists came in January this year. He said three chartered flights were already booked in 2019 and nine chartered flights booked in 2020.

The General Manager said that 70 percent of the tourists’ names were confirmed and payment was also made before June 20, 2022. “We couldn’t confirm the remaining 30 percent since they had issues with passport even after payments were made and agreement signed with the airline,” he said.

DoT has validated 14,429 applications and disqualified 4,061 applications for lack of adequate information about the tourists. DoT approved 13,244 tourists to visit at old SDF rate USD 65.

According to the record with the department of immigration, out of the 16,721 tourists visited as of April 15, 8,945 tourists paid the old SDF rate of USD 65, while 7,776 have paid the new SDF rate of USD 200.

Meanwhile, Bhutan Raewa Travels did not want to comment. Amen Bhutan Tours could not be reached.

The Director General of DoT, Dorji Dhradhul, also did not want to comment on the issue.