Thukten Zangpo   

Tour operators, during the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators’ (ABTO) annual general meeting yesterday, raised several issues affecting their industry from the sustainable development fund (SDF) refunds, discounts in border towns, and relevancy of tour operating licenses.

ABTO’s executive director, Sonam Dorji said that tour operators who booked tours on or before June 20, 2022 under the minimum daily packaged rate are yet to get the refund because of the policy changes despite the government assurance to refund the SDF within two weeks. 

The government introduced a 50 percent waiver of SDF with 4+4, 7+7 and 12+18 schemes from May 31, 2023 and removed the schemes and SDF at 50 percent from August 25, 2023. “Tour operators are facing difficulties getting refunds for the difference in SDF paid by tourists,” Sonam Dorji said. 

The 4+4 scheme meant a tourist paid a SDF for only four nights with  an additional four nights stay without having to pay the USD 200 fees per night. Similarly, for 7+7 package, a tourist paid for seven nights and got another 7 SDF free nights, and under 12+18, a tourist paid for 12 nights and got 18 nights SDF free.

Another issue tour operators raised was on the border town SDF discount. 

The government on March 30 2023, announced that the SDF shall be waived for casual visitors for up to 24 hours in the border towns of Samtse, Phuentsholing, Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar, as long as they did not travel beyond the designated zone of the border towns with effect from April 14 2023 until April 13 2024.

Subsequently, a new SOP was issued when the schemes were introduced, “The SDF incentives cannot be combined with the 24-hour SDF waiver for border towns.”

Sonam Dorji questioned the effectiveness of the SDF incentives at present and he said that it was not applicable to  USD SDF paying tourists. 

Meanwhile, with the government aiming to attract 300,000 tourists in the country, tour operators are requesting to introduce duration and group discounts to encourage longer stays and travel by larger groups.

Sonam Dorji said that Section 9 of the Tourism Levy Act of Bhutan 2022 and Section 7 of the Tourism Rules and Regulations (TRR) 2022 could be invoked to introduce such incentives. According to the Section 9 of the Tourism Act, a competent authority may provide for an exemption or concessionary levy rate on the applicable Sustainable Development Fee, subject to any conditions prescribed in the rules.

At the same time, the TRR 2022 states that the Tourism Council of Bhutan or Department of Tourism may provide an exemption or concessionary levy rate on the applicable SDF as provided in Section 9 of the Act.

An official from the department of tourism, Damchoe Rinzin, said that the duration and group discounts are included as part of the review of TRR 2022 in place. 

Tour operators also questioned the relevance of licensed tour operators in the current system. A tour operator said that anyone can operate tours with the recent policy changes. Sonam Dorji added that the tour operation license has become redundant and there is no value because everybody is in the tour operation business. 

Tour operators also raised concerns of  tourists not being able to exit via Darranga in Samdrupjongkhar and Dadhgari in Gelephu with e-visa and stamped visa. 

They requested the Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Employment to expedite the implementation process in facilitating visas through these routes. 

An official from the department of immigration said that casual visitors are applicable to only Indians. She added that the exit route through Darranga is ready to implement, however, Dadhgari, she said,  is yet to be finalised. 

Tour operators also said that overseas agents are dominating  local agents because the new policy allowed tourists to  apply for visas online from anywhere, bypassing local agents.