30 participants comprising the dzongkhag economic development officers (EDO), planning officers, environment officers, gewog administrative officers and forestry officers from around the country attended a training workshop on Ecotourism Product Development organized by the Tourism Council of Bhutan which began on July 5, in Bumthang. 

The 4-day long workshop aims to enhance the capacity of the stakeholders within and outside the project landscape and to provide a platform for knowledge and experience sharing for the project coordinators in the landscape districts and beyond. The workshop also prioritizes creating awareness and helps develop a common understanding of the mandatory project requirements during the implementation phase.

During the workshop, the participants were updated on the GEF7 Ecotourism Project “mainstreaming biodiversity conservation into the tourism sector in Bhutan”. The participants were made to differentiate between ecotourism, nature tourism and wildlife tourism. They were also sensitized on environmental and social safeguards, screening process and management plan and relevant topics in line with ecotourism entrepreneurship and product development.  

The participants from different dzongkhags presented their business and product ideas and shared their perspectives on ecotourism potential in their respective districts. 

“I consider the Ecotourism Project as a very potential endeavour for the enhancement of tourism in Lhuentse as our dzongkhag prioritizes both domestic and international tourists. So, even during the Covid-19 Pandemic, our dzongkhag was not affected badly as we constantly received domestic tourists which help sustain our community’s livelihood,” said the EDO from Lhuentse, Tshewang Zangmo.

She added, that as Singye Dzong eco-trail and Ludlow-butterfly trail are well-known to the people, the GEF7 ecotourism project intervention at these sites would further boost the livelihood of the local people residing nearby these sites. 

Lhuentse has many potential tourist attractions like Takila Guru Statue, Khoma Kishuthara, Gangzur Earthern Pottery, Singye Dzong trek, Rinchen Bumpa, Jigme Namgyal Muesum and Dungkar Naktshang, Phuningla to Aja trail, Rodungla trek. Singye Dzong trek and Phuningla to Aja trails are some of the significant ecotourism products of the Project. 

The EDO from Samdrup Jongkhar, Sonam Wangchuk, said although the district is not under the project landscape and tourism policy is limited only to the municipality, the ecotourism project will definitely benefit the dzongkhag in the long run. The project provides funds and supports the feasibility studies of potential tourism products from the district. He highlighted that Samdrup Jongkhar district has valuable tourist attractions like Narphung-Samdrup Jongkhar bird-watching, Kalingtsho hiking, Chokyi Gyatsho Institute (Dzongsar Shedra), Shiv-Mandir at Jomotsangkha, and an exclusive salt-trek route from Samdrup Jongkhar to Trashigang. 

The Bumthang EDO, Pema Tshomo said she is now convinced about the essence of ecotourism after attending the workshop. She highlights, “Ecotourism can be an important driver to improving livelihoods and conserving the environment we live in. While protection of nature is at the core of ecotourism, it also provides visitors an avenue to immerse in the goodness of nature and create meaningful experiences.” 

She added that the most important thing she learn is that when communities are taken as an important stakeholders in ecotourism and engaged in the development process, the management and sustainability of such projects are ensured throughout.

“Under the tourism flagship support, Pema Gatshel district has revived the ancient trading route of the east which is commonly known as the salt route. This trek product is called Lotus valley trekking and travel. This 3-day trek is developed around 11 kilometres’ walk and rest travel by road, with chances of biodiversity exploration like birding, camping and visiting Ney (holy sites),” said the EDO from Pema Gatshel, Nima Zangmo.  

She added that the district also has other attractions like local festivals, unique textile (Kamthagma traditional Cotton weaving), art and craft (Khar Dung Jaling), and religious sites of Yongla Goenpa, Dungkhar Goenpa, Thongphu Goenpa and more. 

According to the Trashi Yangtse EDO, Chimi Yudon, Trashi Yangtse is already popular for domestic tourism with a national landmark like Chorten Kora, and many revered holy sites like Omba Ney, Rigsum Gonpa, Shero Dzong and Dechenphodrang. The district, she said, has a huge potential as an ecotourism destination with attractions like Black-necked Cranes, Ludlow’s Bhutan Glory, Boomdeling Wildlife Sanctuary and Ramsar site. 

During the workshop, a presentation was also made on birding in ecotourism by Dr Sherub, an ornithologist from the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environmental Research (UWICER). He said with 761 bird species recorded in Bhutan to date, there is a huge potential for birding tourism in the country. 

 The most commonly accepted definition of ecotourism was established by The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) in 1990 as responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people. However, ecotourism in Bhutan is defined as “High-Value Low-Impact travel that supports the protection of cultural and natural heritage; provides positive and enriching experiences for visitors and hosts; assures tangible benefits to local people, and contributes to the pillars of Gross National happiness.” 

“Promoting High-Value Low-Impact not only in terms of revenue generation alone but excellence in standards and services and providing unique and authentic experiences. Low Impact by minimizing negative socio-cultural and environmental impacts,” said one of the resource persons, Tshering Pem from the Nature Conservation Division under the Department of Forests and Park Services. 

According to the Project Technical Specialist of GEF7 Ecotourism Project, Jigme Dorji, Bhutan has remained unexplored in terms of offering ecological services to tourists. 

“There are ample opportunities that mainstreaming biodiversity into the tourism sector will contribute towards diversification of high-end tourism products in the country. Ecotourism can be a very effective tool to provoke regional distribution of tourists and enhance income opportunities for the local communities,” he said.  

The workshop trainers and resource persons were from the UNDP Bhutan, Nature Conservation Division, Ministry of Labour of Human Resources and the project management unit under the Tourism Council of Bhutan. 

Tourism Council of Bhutan launched GEF7 Ecotourism Project “Mainstreaming Biodiversity Conservation into the Tourism Sector in Bhutan” in September, last year. This Ecotourism project is funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF) through the UNDP Bhutan office. The project is expected to bring about transformational changes in the rural development landscape. It is expected to diversify the agriculture-dominant rural economy by promoting a wildlife-based economy, boosting domestic tourism, creating employment opportunities and increasing community resilience and connection to nature. 

This series is sponsored by Ecotourism Project “Mainstreaming Biodiversity Conservation into the Tourism Sector in Bhutan” funded by GEF-UNDP through the Tourism Council of Bhutan, RGoB.