… Draft Economic roadmap proposes raising the daily tariff rate 

Yangchen C Rinzin

It would take at least five more years for the tourism industry to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic disruptions and reach the same level as in 2019, according to the economic roadmap 2030 taskforce.

Even if the tourism reopened post Covid-19, Bhutan would receive 100 percent of tourists only by 2025, according to their estimate. Only about 10 percent of tourists are expected to visit Bhutan if it reopens this year.

Tourism has been identified as one of the key drivers to realise the roadmap’s goal of a USD 10 billion economy by 2030. The roadmap aims to achieve additional employment of 30,000 and revenue generation of about Nu 75 billion through the tourism sector.

Kuensel learnt that the 21st Century Economic Roadmap taskforce has finalised the draft report recommending the government to prioritise reviving the sector at the earliest.

While there are some works going on for tourism recovery post Covid-19 with bubble tourism identified as a potential approach, there is lack of clarity on this, according to the draft report.

A source said that the government must put concerted efforts and attention to the sector in the form of temporary policy measures or investments, as these are urgent in the context of the economic roadmap.

According to a source, the taskforce would look into strategic initiatives or ideas to reform and revive the sector like modernising regulatory and legislative frameworks, cultivating partnerships with key stakeholders, and exploring ways to future-proof policies.

Among many initiatives, the draft report proposes introducing a one-time fee (visa or sustainable development fee) to USD 325 per tourist per visit for two weeks stay and additional USD 30 per night thereafter.

Another recommendation is for all tours to be routed through a licensed local tour agent and tour payment to be transferred in advance for visa. 

Overnight stay has to be in a TCB certified accommodation only.

However, regional tourist management will be in line with the implementation of SDF as approved by the Parliament and where the tariff model could be prototyped for about two years during lean seasons as a part of the post pandemic recovery plan.

The reform would also include introducing E-visa, which could be issued from an upgraded Tashel system for one-time visa fees that would allow two weeks and be valid for 3-6 months.

The taskforce recommends to declare Gelephu, Manas, Nganglam, Phuentsholing and Samdrupjongkhar as SDF free zones both for entry and exit but for transit purpose only for tourists that come through some licensed local tour agents.

“SDF can be used as a flexible tool to attract more tourists during off-season. For example, introduce flat SDF waiver or discounts during lean season or SDF discounts on senior citizens and students during lean season,” it recommended.

While continuing the current practice of booking hotels through the local tour operator, the taskforce recommends a parallel mechanism to allow direct booking through foreign currency accounts.

The tourism sector is often burdened or affected by different rules and regulations in place like route permit from immigration that affects the travel of tourists. This is why the taskforce has recommended reviewing regulations to ensure smart travel is facilitated.

The need to create a National Tourism Promotion and Marketing Board that will also comprise private sector representatives, including airline companies, is also spelled out in the draft report. “It is recommended to separate the regulatory and policy functions from the commercial functions, to ensure efficiency and accountability in tourism.”

Online booking and digital payment, enabling businesses to accept card payment, and collection of tourism data to understand visitor profiles, preferences and feedback, are also recommended.

Other recommendations or interventions the taskforce proposes are air connectivity and new entry points like upgrading Gelephu and Bumthang to international airports, promote charter flights to Bhutan, which will be especially relevant post Covid-19 to mitigate fears of infection and hassle during transit.  

“Opening up the international immigration at the border check posts of Gelephu, Panbang, Samdrupjongkhar, Samtse, product diversification, harnessing synergies between culture and tourism and building a resilient tourism sector need to be looked into,” it recommended.

The industry remains closed since March last year and has been hit hard. It already recorded Nu 2 billion in non-performing loans (NPL) as of March 2020. The pandemic has also left about 50,000 people jobless and affected various businesses in the sector.

The taskforce has also stressed on upskilling of employees in the tourism sector like giving new and upgraded skills to help them when they return to work.

The draft document will be submitted to the high-level roundtable, which is chaired by the prime minister, and comprises heads of the other three arms of government, leaders of political parties and the Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry president, among others.