As an important sector identified as a jewel of the economy, discussions on the tourism sector is always relevant.
Bhutan is marketed as a high-end destination, one where its people live in harmony with nature and rich cultural heritage. With photographs of those living in the highlands, tourism brochures and websites celebrate the country’s remoteness, giving the country and its people almost an exotic aura of the so called the Last Shangri-La, a brand that we are not very keen on promoting.
But the National Council raised valid concerns. Like our development programmes, tourism and its benefits are skewed to western Bhutan where roads are well paved and hotel facilities better. It is the lack of these same facilities that deters tour operators from taking tourists to other parts of the country. This means benefits from tourism to the local communities is minimal. Initiatives have been taken to promote farm stays in the central and eastern Bhutan but they have not been sustainable.
These issues are real, but there is a need to be as realistic about the sector that earns the highest foreign exchange for the country after hydropower. It is a business, seasonal to an extent, and one that is prone to external circumstances such as disasters. Promotions have to be accompanied by access and the state of our domestic airports is telling of the accessibility situation. But because it is a business that employees a huge number of people in the service sector, the market does dictate the flow of tourism in the country. One could blame the business again for the practice of under-cutting is an open secret in the industry. Yet, the audit authority being unable to find concrete evidence to prove it raises more questions. For one, it could mean that the practice has become a part of the system, institutionalised even, for the audit authority to trace it.
From tour operators, guides, handicraft shops and farmers offering home stays in remote parts of the country, everyone involved in the tourism industry feels the impacts of these practices and situation. In term of policy, it is high value, low impact and remains so, but in practice the tourism industry risks becoming high impact, low value. The increasing number of regional tourists only adds to this dilemma.
The government’s decision to put in place a tourism policy is timely. It is hoped that the policy would address these issues confronting the sector because the destination may be high-end but the problems are local. The Council recommended a tourism Act to regulate the industry but says little on how enacting an Act would regulate the industry.
The tobacco Act shows that enacting an Act is not enough just as the forest Act, which prohibits constructions in protected areas but doesn’t stop construction of road through it.
Somehow we have come this far without an Act for the two important sectors that the economy depends on – hydropower and tourism. Given their importance to the country, the pulse of the economy, these jewels, their policies and Acts are more than ornaments.