Following the rafting accident involving a death of a person, tour operators were not allowed to operate rafting in Punakha from August 13.
Managing director of one of the rafting companies, Sonam Tobgay, said that banning of the activity just because of the accident was not acceptable. “Accidents happen everywhere. Just because accidents had happened on road, are you going to stop all the traffic tomorrow?”
Due to the ban, rafters were being affected directly, he said. “Because there’s nothing to do in Punakha, hotels and restaurants would also suffer.”
The bureaucracy needed to look at the economic impacts of the decision in a holistic manner, he said. “When Punakha is cut off one day from the itinerary, Bhutan loses one day of its itinerary.”
A member of Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators’ (ABTO) board committee said that the recent cancellation of Matsutake festival had incurred extra expenses in terms of compensation for the tour operators, and affected confidence in the local tour operators. “Some operators might even have to refund to foreign tour operators because the set activity was absent.”
Sonam Tobgay said that when the dzongkhag banned the activity, they thought only a few companies would be affected and did not see the snowballing effect.
An official from ABTO said that a letter was written to the economic affairs ministry on August 27 about the tour operators’ concerns.
Tour operators expressed the need to have a single authority for monitoring and regulation purposes and for safer system in place.
The incident was a timely warning that if there was no monitoring and regulation, bigger mishaps could occur, Sonam Tobgay said. “Tourism is an unorganised sector. There are four organisations with the responsibility but have no authority to either monitor or regulate the activity.”
He said that there were about six rafting companies operating in Punakha. However, after the incident, it was found that only two companies namely, Druk Rafting and Explore Lotus were licensed for commercial operation. The rest were travel agencies without the commercial license.
Sonam Tobgay’s letter to ABTO stated that until the accident happened, every agency whether related or unrelated were complacent. “None of the agencies seemed concerned about the safety issues, legitimacy of the operations, level of competence to conduct an adventure tourism activity that has the potential to endanger lives,” it stated.
It also stated that the erstwhile Tourism Authority of Bhutan monitored and regulated rafting activities with the tacit understanding that rafting is essentially a tourism activity.
Sonam Tobgay said that a written request was submitted to Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) a year ago to urge the Punakha’s dzongkhag administration to repair the damaged pipeline that hangs over the river. It was found that the condition of the pipe was still the same.
TCB notified ABTO about the suspension of the activity on August 13.
“Lifting the ban would make us happy but it won’t take care of the industry in the future,” Sonam Tobgay said.
He said that the industry needed stronger regulation and supervision. “Efforts need to be there to make tourism viable for the long run.”
TCB said that the organisation did not ban the rafting activity. “We do not have the authority to ban.”
Punakha dzongdag was not available for comment.