… the issue remains complex and DoT says it is trying 

Chencho Dema | Punakha

Almost six months after Bhutan launched its major tourism reforms, those in tourism and hospitality sectors and visitors are not satisfied with the quality of amenities for tourists.

Tour operators, tourists, and guides have complained to Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) that while the monument sites that collect fees like Paro Taktshang and Punakha Dzong have toilets, they are not maintained well and “not sanitary”.

The tourists, and guides who travel with them, criticise for the lack of amenities such as lockers and restrooms despite having to pay a charge between Nu 1,000 and Nu 2,000 to enter the monuments.

A 37-year-old Austrian, Sabine Emmersbuger said that she hopes the relevant authorities would build better amenities surrounding the monuments with the money they receive from the entrance fees.

Jan Schrader, a 32-year-old German, said, “The authorities should restore the existing facilities.”

ABTO Executive Director Sonam Dorji said that according to complaints, both tourists and locals are occasionally prohibited from bringing cameras and phones into certain monuments, and there is not a locker facility for them to store their belongings. “Such matters should be looked into and provided especially for those sites where entrance fees are charged.”

Before the pandemic, foreigners were charged entry fees at eight locations: Taktsang, Traschichhodzong, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Memorial Choeten, Changangkha Lhakhang, Kyichu Lhakhang, Rinpung Dzong, Punakha Dzong, and Chimi Lhakhang.

After the Covid-19 pandemic, starting September 23, eight additional locations: Jampa Lhakhang in Bumthang, Jangtsa Dumtse Lhakhang and Dobji Dzong in Paro, Rinchending Goenpa and Palden Tashi Choling Shedra in Phuentsholing, Buddha Dordenma, Simtokha Dzong in Thimphu, and Trongsa Dzong – started collecting Nu 1,000 as entry fees.

A tour operator, Yeshey Dorji said that for the asking price the least that can be expected of Bhutan is to be able to provide the most rudimentary amenities – such as clean washroom and toilet facilities in and around dzongs, temples and other monuments of tourist interest.

“We have to understand that it is fundamental to human decency, a demonstration of civility, that we are not found wanting in the provision of, if nothing else, a decent hole in which to pee,” he said.

He says that the standard of service across the tourism service chain is bound to fall, given the sudden exodus of Bhutanese human capital to Australia. “Bhutan is in for a seriously rough time – unless we embark on an agile and adaptive approach to doing business, based on our known weaknesses and tested and proven strengths.”

Yelha Travel Proprietor, Pila said that most of his visitors had complained about the condition of the restrooms. “The government should also provide basic amenities to the guests when they can hike the SDF tariff,” he said.

Many guides Kuensel interviewed said that authorities concerned should look into developing better facilities for the guests.

A cultural tour guide, Rada Wangmo said that it is awkward to escort guests to particularly filthy restrooms. “There is a restroom available at the Ramthangkha (Taktshang base), but there is a fee of Nu 25 per person. There is nothing we can do, which is frustrating,” she said.

There used to be locker facilities at Taktshang, according to Pema Thinley, another culture-hiking and nature guide. “But now there is none. Even locals can’t use the toilet there because of the stench.”

An official from Department of Tourism (DoT) said there is a need to commensurate with high end infrastructure and services to protect and promote exclusivity and continue to provide positive visitor experiences.

Among others, there is a need to construct toilets along the highways and popular tourist sites to provide decent services for all the travellers including tourists and to discourage open urination.

The department has constructed over eighty such restrooms along the highways and tourist sites. “However, providing quality and clean restrooms continue to remain a major challenge despite having tried various management modalities such as service contracts, management contracts, and leased contracts,” the official said.

The preparatory works including the construction of amenities and recruitment of human resources were initiated before to ensure seamless operation and management of the sites.

The official said that there already existed the restroom facilities inside Punakha Dzong and temples to be catered to the visitors. “The facilities are managed by respective administrations.”

“However, we understand that the standards can be further improved to provide decent and better travel experiences. In order to further enhance the convenience of visits, the department in collaboration with dzongkhag administration is constructing new restroom facilities in both the premises, and the facilities are expected to be operational by around June 2023,” the official said.

The department received complaints about this issue from tourism stakeholders in the past. However, the department has always tried to facilitate and resolve the issue in collaboration with relevant agencies. “The construction of facilities is not seen as a major issue, if not limited by financial capacity,” the official said.

However, the management of these facilities has been the major issue contributed by the general public’s treatment of public restrooms, the lack of attractive incentives to manage the facilities, the lack of people interested to work in such facilities, and lack of interested private entities to operate and manage the facilities.

The official said that for instance, in order to introduce the effective restroom management model, the outsourcing of management of restrooms along Phajoding trails was announced twice in the public media, yet they received only two applications for both announcements.

“Moreover, introduction of attractive model is sometimes restricted by location sensitivity thus contributing to management failure and lack of interested private investors,” the official said.

The department said that it will continue to facilitate the construction of similar amenities, such as restrooms with integrated amenities such as caretaker’s quarter and convenience shops along the highways and tourist sites.

The department will continue to facilitate the construction of integrated amenities and adopt similar models adopted for Phajoding trail, that is privatisation of the management in the viable areas. “If the model adopted along Phajoding trail is recognised to be effective and successful, the similar model and company will replicate the management in other areas too,” the official said.

In the less business-viable areas, mostly in the sites where restroom is operated in isolation, for instance Phajoding trail, the official said that the government will have to support the manager with attractive remuneration and incentives to ensure that the facilities remain clean and functional for all times.

In addition to the construction of restroom facilities and other amenities in the monument sites, the restrooms are being constructed at three Druk Neykor sites, Khojung monastery in Lhuentse, Chari base in Thimphu, and Ngoedrupchu Goenpa in Punakha.

Moreover, similar facilities will also be introduced at other Druk Nekor sites, highways and tourist sites with proper management plans, if required.

The official from the DoT said that management of public bathrooms and other infrastructure does not solely rest on the Department of Tourism. “Everyone using these facilities, especially the Bhutanese, have a responsibility to keep the washrooms clean and avoid any vandalism.”