Unlike in the past, Bhutanese travel agents in Phuentsholing would now arrange their own pilgrimage bus services.

Bhutanese operators sought help from people across the border as middlemen to hire buses from Bihar that ferried pilgrims to Bodhgaya and other pilgrimage sites. Commission charges affected both pilgrims and operators, while the middlemen are claimed to profit the most.

This year, operators decided to hire buses from Bihar but faced problems in bringing in the hired to Phuentsholing.

Requesting anonymity, operators Kuensel spoke to said that few people from across the border had not allowed the bus to come to Phuentsholing as their hiring services were affected.

One operator said that the bus fare for pilgrims would decrease when operators hired buses on their own from Bihar.

“We want to directly link the pilgrims to buses in Bihar on our own,” he said. “Both operators and pilgrims would benefit.”

Earlier, Bhutanese operators sold the tickets and pilgrims boarded buses across the border. Safety and other facilities were also uncertain while boarding buses from the border town.

Tour operators said that the maximum amount they invested in hiring a bus from Bihar would be Nu 50,000 for a 55-seat bus. Those who stopped the buses from entering Phuentsholing charged operators Nu 54,000.

An operator said he wanted to run his own business without depending on those across the border. “Jaigaon police said they will help,” he said.

Meanwhile, the department of law and order, drungkhag office, and other relevant agencies in Phuentsholing have consulted their Indian counterpart and resolved this problem, drungkhag officials said. The Bhutanese team has met and had a dialogue with the district magistrate and superintendent of police of Alipurduar where the Indian counterpart has agreed to support.

Drungkhag officials also said that Jaigaon police have been supportive. The Indian counterpart has also asked Bhutanese officials to share their contact numbers with pilgrims and other Bhutanese travelling to India.

Director with the department of law and order, Tashi Penjor said they are in close contact with their counterpart to facilitate the travel without any hassle.

With Bhutanese travel agents starting to hire buses independently, the Package Pilgrimage Regulation, 2017, is also coming into play and pilgrims could expect reduced fares and other facilities. Safety, security, convenience, and insurance are some facilities pilgrims could expect this season.

Travel operators said more than 50,000 Bhutanese travel to Bodhgaya in Bihar and Tsho Pema in Himachal Pradesh annually.

Rajesh Rai | Phuentsholing