This despite (or maybe because) only 7 out of every 100 tourists opt to trek in Bhutan

Tourism: Contrary to the earlier statement, Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) officials, yesterday, said works are on to revive 12 trekking routes, mostly in the east, as announced by the prime minister last month.

Lyonchoen announced 11 new trekking routes and hiring of two helicopters at the Pacific Asia Travel Association conference in Thimphu on February 6.  However, TCB officials, in an earlier interview, said they have not received any order from lyonchoen, and that the new trekking routes were not in the 11th Plan either.

While ‘miscommunication between officials’ was cited as the reason for not being aware of the new routes, TCB officials clarified that 12 routes instead of 11 would be revived and opened as new trekking routes.

TCB’s head of planning division, Kinley Wangdi, said the trek routes were traditional routes used in the olden days in absence of roads. “These routes haven’t been promoted or sold as products yet,” he said. “As people no longer use these routes, we have to revive them to make it pliable.”

Of the 12 routes, nine are in the east, covering Trashigang, Pemagatshel, Trashiyangtse, and Samdrupjongkhar, while the rest are in Gasa, Bumthang-Trongsa, and Zhemgang.

The initiative, Kinley Wangdi said, was a part of their plan to diversify product and promote tourism in the east for regional spread of tourism benefits.  Eastern Bhutan is the least explored region in the country.

TCB officials said preliminary surveys have been completed on four routes, and the final survey would be completed by this financial year. “We’re targeting to open the routes by mid 2016, but we’re hopeful that some will open earlier,” Kinley Wangdi said.

The total cost for revival or development of trekking routes will be known only after the final survey, to be done with support from the local government, community and park services. “We haven’t estimated the cost yet, as it depends on the amount of work required to revive the trek routes,” Kinley Wangdi said.

The new trek routes will have basic amenities like proper campsite areas, besides toilet and bathroom facilities for trekkers.

On the hiring of helicopters to ferry tourists, lyonchoen said private business entities could take the initiative on their own, or in partnership with foreign counterparts.

“If no one is interested, the government will buy the helicopters and start the service,” lyonchoen said, at the meet-the-press session last week.

Although known for its pristine nature, Bhutan is rather seen as a cultural destination with comparatively less number of trekking tourists every year.  In 2013, records with TCB show that trekking tourists constituted about seven percent of the total international arrivals.  About 52,798 international tourists visited Bhutan that year.

Trekking, in Bhutan, is part of nature-based tourism activity, with treks varying from one to 40 nights.  Rather than investing in new trekking routes, tour operators said the existing ones should be improved to attract more trekking tourists.

Tour operators said most tourists complained that trekking in Bhutan was not worth what they paid, because of lack of infrastructure or development along the trails.  Despite the same minimum daily tariff of USD 250 and 200 during the peak and lean seasons for both cultural and trekking tourists, tour operators said it was easier to sell cultural tour packages.

On the other hand, most tour operators are not well equipped, except for a few well- established tour companies.

Trekking tourists increased in 2010 and 2011, after which it started to decline.  In 2010, the country recorded 2,753 trekking tourists that increased to 3,402 in 2011.  However, it dropped to 3,165 in 2012.  In 2013 only about 2,943 of the total international arrivals were for trekking.

By Kinga Dema