Tourism industry asks for policy on regional tourists

Given the increasing arrivals, the industry feel there is a need to have a policy in place

Tourism: The drastic increase in the arrival of regional tourists over the years has pushed tourism stakeholders to call for a policy to govern regional tourists.

Tourism stakeholders raised the issue with the government recently expressing the need for a proper strategy on management and maximising benefits of regional tourists.

Records with the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) show that as of May this year, 45,704 regional tourists visited the country. During the same period last year, 24,059 regional tourists visited the country. From 5,513 regional tourist arrivals in January this year, May alone recorded 18,342 visitors.

Visitors from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives are referred as regional tourists.

Unlike international tourists, regional tourists are exempt from paying the minimum daily tariff of USD 250 and 200 for the peak and lean seasons. They also do not require visas to enter the country.

Records indicate a steady increase in regional tourists over the years. From 50,722 regional tourist arrivals in 2012, it increased to 63,426 and 65,399 in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

Until a couple of years ago, regional tourists were not part of the tourism statistics. However, now that their numbers are used as a yardstick for achieving targets, tour operators said there should be certain regulations in place not just to monitor but also to effectively manage and optimise tourism benefits.

As most regional tourists enter the country unguided and drive their own vehicles without any restriction, tourism stakeholders feel that this could have an impact on the dollar-paying tourists.

Regional tourists process their entry and route permits from the immigration department. The trend is such that a majority of them enter from the border town of Phuentsholing via road. Hoteliers said most prefer to cook on their own and about three to five tourists share a room. Although most hotels don’t allow such arrangements, some do.

All international tourists have to be put up in a three-star category hotel and above while this requirement is not applicable for regional tourists.

Tour operators said that a regulation is a must for regional tourists to offer a meaningful trip. Tour operators have also raised the issue with the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO).

TCB attributes the increase in regional tourists to continued ​awareness on Bhutan as a destination through TCB’s participation in numerous tourism events. However, officials didn’t comment on whether its time for the country to have a tourism policy for regional tourists as well.

ABTO’s executive director Sonam Dorje said that the country has seen more increase in regional tourists than the dollar-paying tourists, especially in the last five years. “The drastic increase in the last two months is mainly owing to diversion of regional tourists whose trips to Nepal got cancelled following the earthquake.”

“As a small country with limited carrying capacity, we do need certain regulations in place even for non-tariff paying tourists,” he said. “A policy would not only help us in sustainably managing our resources but also help visitors have memorable experiences.”

Tour operators said if the issue is not addressed soon, the country could lose high-end tourists who prefer Bhutan as a niche destination.

“Bhutan is a cheap destination for regional tourists as they pay the same air fare as Bhutanese and entrance fees at monuments are also cheaper for them,” a tour operator said. “Some hotels also offer them much cheaper price as hotels get cash payment.”

Another tour operator who also caters to regional tourists said that as a small country, there should not be two different tourism policies. “We might have enough hotels now but we’ve only have few tourist sites and it’s getting over crowded,” he said. “This will discourage dollar-paying tourists who solely visit Bhutan as an exclusive destination.”

If regional tourists are regulated well, tour operators and guides said it would help solve the existing seasonality issue as most regional tourists travel to Bhutan to escape the heat during the summer months. Some suggested that a SAARC rate of just charging royalty should be in place.

Guides Association of Bhutan’s chairman Garab Dorji said that with the increasing regional tourists, the tourist hotspots become crowded during peak seasons. “Unregulated regional tourists are against our policy of high value, low volume,” he said, adding that regional tourists are difficult to manage and have disciplinary issues.

Garab Dorji also pointed out the need to assess the contribution of regional tourists to the economy should the trend continue.

By Kinga Dema

2 replies
  1. Nar Rai
    Nar Rai says:

    I fully agree with Institutions like the TCB, ABTO and GAB about regional tourism policy. I am one of the Tour Operators myself. We urge the concerned authorities jointly to have ToR and regulations in place for our regional tourists so that our other international tourists don’t feel that disparity and in-equality with double policies for tour clients getting into the Kingdom.

    I also very much agree with Acho Garab Dorji (GAB) who indicated the disciplinary aspect with our regional tourists. Recently, I saw one young couple (regional tourists) sitting literally on the glass frame in National Archive Library and doing photographs when the guide realized it was wrong and politely asked them to refrain from sitting on it.

    The glass pane frame that has the world’s biggest book scroll (recorded by Would Guinness Book) almost broke apart despite the prior notification by the guide to the couple.

    Often our few regional tourists put on the hats while entering the office premises and temples and smoke around apart from the instruction by our guides. Most of these incidents take place when they are on their own and with no guides and local operators with them.

    Our overseas clients are well mannered and obey every instruction to the guides and operators on the other hand. Not all regional tourists are bad though I mean honestly. Many regional tourists follow the instruction if they book trip through our Tour Operator counterparts.

    This problem is created when the regional tourists hire local drivers across the boarder and quite often, the local drivers of their country of origin act as guide and driver as well. They were never briefed with the regulation and policy of tourism industry in our country. They often decline to hire our local trained guides since the guide has to be paid with minimum fee per day as per Tourism Board regulations.

    If this trend continues for a long time, our long envisioned quality tourism of the State will be in great jeopardy. Let – we all stakeholders from all spectrum – work hard on it and make an user-friendly regulations to all our regional tourists coming to Bhutan. The hiring of local car across the boarder and acting as guide will over-ride our tourism goal and vision in the long run.

    The framework should be developed to our regional tourists like our other international visitors with minimum star rating hotels, tariff, guides to be accompanied, standardize the car category, regional tourists book through registered tour operators in Bhutan and so forth.

    Today, you see the local tour agents in our bordering towns supersedes the local tour operators in the Kingdom, compromising the code of conduct, quality of accommodation, renting a car, minimum tariff etc.

    Our suggestion would be to streamline all regional tourists to book trip through agents in Bhutan so that they dont land up coming through Phuntsholing boarder town and hiring cars and guides that has no professional license and papers in place to qualify for trip to Bhutan.

    Let the Immigration Office issue permit only when they book tour packages through Tour Operators in-country so that the adverse impact of our tourism industry is not at stake and defame our Tourism Sector in the years to come.

    This is a way forward and a very good tool to generate revenue for the State as well as the Tour Operators and Hoteliers get their fair share at the end of the day.

  2. MIGNIEN
    MIGNIEN says:

    Why the TCB leave a so great laissez faire in the managing of regional tourists ? that cause a very deep loss to the economy of the country ; and make a very discrimination towards international tourists who have to pay a daily tariff and plus must have a visa through a Tour Operators .
    I quote above brievly the incomprehensible privileges thoses regional tourist have the benefit :
    – exemption of visa
    – no tariff fees
    – they drive their own vehicule
    – they cook their own meals
    – they share rooms made for 2 people with 3 up to 5 peoples for the same fare
    – they use under three stars hotels
    – they do not use local Tour operators
    – They go and see tourists events freely
    – Hoteliers apply cheaper fares for them ( to make money )
    – they have no discilplinary issues

    So the international tourists feel to be overcharged to compensate the regional tourists who do not participate to the economy of the country . I repeat this is uncomprhensible and not fair play towards international clientele paying in dollars who make earning money to the trade of the country !!! !

    jcmignien@orange.fr

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