Tourism in Bhutan was built on the foundation of high standards. The guiding principle on which the tourism policy started was High Value and Low Volume. This guideline, over time, blended to High Value and Low Impact. The minimum fixed tariff set during the rein of His Majesty the Drukgyal Zhipa had all the timeless guidelines, specifically in terms of maintaining standards. If the bedrock of Bhutan’s tourism is High Value and Low Impact, then we have to take a step back and rethink more in terms of standards. The new vision should be geared more towards promoting, creating, and restoring the tourism products.
Rethinking and standardising products need attention for current and long-term solutions.
Current standards would equate to upgrading products based on health and safety standards. One way to recreate these standards is by sensitising the stakeholders, starting from the basics such as health and safety pertaining to food and infrastructure. Under food, we have so much varieties and creations. What the planners must focus on is how to help the food industry operate with a good standard of health and safety. The market force will automatically tune the rest. Under infrastructure, we can push for the immediate basics such as the repair of our roads, drains, etc. When it comes to accommodations, those that are below 3-star category could be standardised with technical help and loan cushions from the government.
Long-term standards are where policies matter the most. How do we focus on the food industry? Can our farms have health and safety standards to the point that rural experiences do not become cheap-stays but rather an interesting alternative to hotels? How can we support creative ideas and projects that would manifest as wonderful tourism products? How can tourism vendors become wonderful products on their own rather than being patronised by tour operators? Simple examples are requirement of trekking and transport business operating as independent companies. When they become independent and licensed separately, regulations and standards (especially in health and safety field) will become important features. The long-term standards should also enhance efficient banking and taxation system. In our society, we have a saying that the red-cow must be looked after well for milk rather than killing it for meat. This analogy should be the crux of our government’s planning body. Therefore, standard tourism products must be understood as resources that will eventually bring benefits to our country (be it direct or indirect).
How do we develop and bring balanced tourism in different regions? This is not a new thought and has been lingering on for many years. In fact, such ideas were discussed long ago and still are. Initiatives such as OGOP (One Gewog One product) are a great way to gain traction for balanced regional development. When planning diversification in tourism, one can take note of the OGOP concept. This idea would develop many products specific and unique to each region, a way to prevent the clogging of tourism activities in one region.
How do we tackle the negative elements of regional tourism and undercutting of the minimum fixed tariff? See, high standards in products can deter many problems. Planning tourism based on sustainability and uniqueness, while keeping standards in mind, will automatically solve many unwanted issues. This is because standards make people responsible and that should be the key focus. When you pay, the question of value comes in. When we all question the High Value and Low Impact through payment for standard services, the rhythm of a unique and sustainable tourism will be further enhanced. Under such a situation, even the highly debated issues about regional tourism or undercutting will not be a priority discussion.
In a nutshell
The approach of taking tourism to the top, headed by the new director general of Tourism Council of Bhutan, is wonderful. We must all support this movement and not let this office stay as an authority without authority. We hope to see TCB secretariat as one place where all the representatives of tourism stakeholders can work together. The secretariat with staff from both the legislative and executive bodies of the government, the NGOs, the CSOs, private sector and those related to tourism could do wonders. We will see that almost all of us are touched by tourism in one way or the other. But, how these stakeholders could work at the TCB secretariat is debatable. They could be under deputation, on voluntary basis or permanently employed. The bottom line is holding all of us responsible for tourism. If we do not think and work as one body then all the energy, passion, etc. that the stakeholders saw and felt during the National Tourism Meet in February will be rendered useless. If the TCB Secretariat has decision makers working together in one office, then all the tourism confusions can be solved holistically.
There are so many write-ups for tourism in Bhutan. The tourism planning body should look for all these literature. Reviewing all these pieces would solve the problem of needlessly looking for new consultants, as many discussions are just comparable to “old wine in a new bottle”. Whatever new ideas we hear are the old ones coming from new mouths.
It is now or never. The winds of tourism are raging on, too fast and too strong. It’s best that we harness this to our advantage. In the end, it’s all about standards when we talk about tourism in Bhutan. We must reflect on the far-sighted vision of minimum tourism tariff coined as the handle. As time changes, many facets must be modified but there is only one issue that really matters and should remain: that is to maintain the High Value and Low Impact. We should not bend this to fulfil political agendas but rather blend it as a sustainable strategy for tourism. His Majesty The Druk Gyalpo has always reminded us of the need for coordination amongst ourselves. This Royal Vision must manifest as a pathfinder at a time when we are redesigning tourism. In the end, it is our collective duty as citizens to reflect: are we ignoring the standards in tourism? Good standards follows good pricing and that’s the conduit through which our tourism must operate.
T Sangay Wangchuk
A guide, tour operator & hotelier