I would like to start by saying that no words nor actions on our part can ever express nor repay the tourism industry’s love and gratitude to His Majesty for comforting, guiding and sustaining us through this pandemic. His Majesty has been our saviour and continues to do so. Bhutan and its citizens are truly blessed by our Dharma King and we humbly offer our deepest prayers for His Majesty’s long life.

The following are some of my personal views on tourism going forward. I hope it makes some sense and provides some sort of clarity to the challenges the industry is facing presently.

The industry is really complex with so many different players. The industry as a whole is largely inter-related and inter-dependent. However, we now need to start working towards a sound, vibrant and sustainable tourism system or model. In truth, this pandemic may just present us with the cure for our problems!

Various post-Covid tourism recovery measures are already being presented and discussed as per the recent headlines. I do hope something good comes out of it and that tourism slowly rebounds back to normalcy.

In addition, the following topic is something I feel is important moving forward and hope that it is given some consideration.

It is important to once again officially recognize the existence of ‘Undercutting’ and ‘Fronting’.

The Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) should immediately make an official statement (better late than never) to the industry to stop undercutting and fronting, and for it to come out clean. It should also announce that anyone resorting to such practices after the resumption of tourism in Bhutan would be dealt with severely. Maximum fines and penalties should then be imposed accordingly.

The industry would then finally, have a golden opportunity to start once again on a clean slate!

An example would be the Government’s recent announcement against ‘Fronting’. All people have been advised to refrain from fronting and to come clean without any action being taken against them. However, strict penalties and actions are to be enforced from January 2022!

Another similar announcement on Undercutting and Fronting in the tourism industry should also be made with effect from 01st January 2022.

These would be directed towards hotels, tour companies, transport, and restaurants, among others.

All tourism service providers from hoteliers (local, farmhouses, tents, and star-rated hotels) to restaurant owners, from transporters and drivers to horse/yak contractors, from tourist amenities such as roadside restrooms to trekking routes and campsites, from rafting tours to motorcycle tours, from mountain biking to MICE tours, from filming to photography tours, from tour/trekking guides to specialist guides, from coffee shops to handicrafts, from airlines to managing waste, from training institutes to touristic centres, from walking/running/cycling trails to touristic paths and all others should be directed by TCB to maintain a minimum level of standard, maintain a minimum level of service, and maintain a minimum level of quality.

The term ‘minimum’ could differ from one service provider to another. TCB should then ensure that the above minimum requirements are strictly followed by way of appropriate consultations, recommendations, reviews and assistance.

Special entry-level requirements could be considered (take examples from countries abroad) for all tourism service providers. This will result in genuine and serious players within the industry and as such deter poor quality, temporary, unqualified and sub-standard tourism products and services.

Propose the creation of a Special Division or Task Force under TCB with the sole mandate of:

a) Rooting out and eliminating undercutting, fronting and other unscrupulous and illegal activities such as tax avoidance amongst others. Independent experts could be bought in (from within or outside the country) to help in creating an incorruptible yet transparent system in place.

b) Monitoring the quality, standard and service of all tourism service products and service providers in the industry.

c) Imposing fines and penalties accordingly.

Creation of a special grievance cell for all kinds of complaints related to tourism from workplace harassment to fronting, from prostitution in hotels to bribery, from manipulation of accounts to corruption, from undercutting to coercion, from discrimination to extortion, from unregulated and over-inflated pricing of tourism services to unscrupulous businesses, from unlicensed hotels and service apartments to unlicensed guides and drivers, from sound pollution to waste management, from inefficient and ineffective delivery of government services to non-payment of bills and so on and so forth. The list goes on!

TCB will maybe need to set up this Special Division or Task Force as soon as possible.

All tourism service providers should be provided with fiscal and non-fiscal subsidies and incentives in order to comply with the new regulations to be in effect from 2022, 2023 or 2024 or on a phase-wise basis depending on the product or service? Experts to that effect could be bought in to help and assist.

Adoption and embracing of technology should also be the need of the hour while planning and strategizing the way forward.

Instituting a committee of specialists to review the minimum daily tariff and sustainable development fee once every two or three years (the present tariff was increased only once since 1991). The daily minimum tariff and sustainable development fee should be reviewed on a timely basis keeping in view the prevailing economic indicators.

The key emphasis here would be to identify and recognize all the problems, challenges, constraints and issues within the tourism industry. Plans and strategies should be in place to permanently address these issues for now and into the future.

Bhutan’s global image as a country emphasising providing ‘value-based services’ stands to be at the crossroads if the above concerns are not addressed. The problems identified are all interrelated and intertwined and will need to be solved simultaneously. Requirement of timely interventions, strong regulations, effective implementation and thorough checks and balances are of paramount importance. If unchecked, the adverse impact on tourism and Bhutan as a country will be disastrous and may even be irreversible. This generation desperately needs to pass on a vibrant, successful, dynamic and exemplary model of tourism to the next.

For it to succeed, the Government will need to provide the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) the following support as soon as possible: funding, increase in manpower, technical guidance and assistance, and more autonomy and authority.

TCB will also need to diligently work with all relevant agencies and stakeholders based ‘throughout’ the country for the plans to succeed. A good start could be to establish a vibrant and productive tourism office with a dedicated team in all dzongkhags.

In conclusion, I do not in any way or form claim to be an expert on tourism nor expect anyone to accept my views.

Contributed by 

Thinley Dorji