The pair comprises a tour operator and an official from the economic affairs ministry

Crime: A tour operator and an official from the economic affairs ministry have been detained by Paro police since May 5 in connection with forged visas of 19 Thai visitors, who travelled in a group of 28.

As part of a group, 28 tourists arrived at Paro international airport on May 4 morning from Bangkok, during which immigration officials found that 19 visas were forged.  Sources said the remaining nine tourists had availed business and official visas.  The tourists had come through Bhutan Breez, a travel agency located in Olakha, Thimphu.

The owner of Bhutan Breez and a planning officer with the ministry’s policy and planning division were detained the next day.  Bhutan Breez started operations in October 2013 as a sister company of Bhutan School of Management Studies.  An office assistant, who travelled with two guides to receive the guests on May 4, said she knew of the forged visas only upon arrival at the airport. “I have no idea about how the visas were applied or forged, as the owner usually does everything himself,” she said.

Police refused to comment, saying the case was under investigation.

Economic affairs minister, Norbu Wangchuk, who is also the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s vice-chairman, said he was not aware of the charges against the ministry official. “I haven’t received any information yet,” lyonpo said.

Following the incident, TCB has been looking after the logistics of the visitors. “Our priority is to look after the welfare of the guests at present,” media spokesperson Damcho Rinzin said.

Damcho Rinzin said TCB would take administrative action on Bhutan Breez, in line with the findings from the agencies concerned.  As per tourism regulations, the most severe form of penalty is cancellation of license, he said.

It is not sure when the visitors would be deported.

Visas for tourists, who pay the minimum daily package rate of USD 250, are applied for online through the visa online system introduced in 2009 mainly to reduce administrative burden.  The immigration department, Drukair, TCB, and tour operators have access to the online system.  For official, personal, and business guests, visas are directly applied for at the immigration department.

Once a visa is approved, the copy of the visa in PDF format is sent to the concerned tour operator and reflected on the online system.  However, the visa online system is not used for official, personal, and business categories.

The visa is then endorsed on a visitor’s passport upon arrival at the port of entry.

This is the third visa forgery case.  In April 2012, three tourists – two Chinese women and a man from Switzerland –were deported after it was found that their visas were forged.  Similarly, early last year, TCB cancelled the license of a travel agency that brought in two German tourists with forged visas.

The immigration Act states that a person, who enters the country illegally, shall be removed to the country from where the person has boarded the aircraft or vehicle, after imposing the penalty of Nu 10,000.

As for the forgery concerned, there is no separate provision in the immigration Act wherein the person can be prosecuted.  Which means, a tour operator, who forges a visa, can get away paying Nu 10,000 followed by cancellation of their license.  Unless it becomes a police case, he or she is not held liable for forgery although it’s an offense of misdemeanour to a felony of second degree, as per the penal code.  Despite the cancellation of licenses, they can still apply for a new license on a different name, like any other business.

Tour operators said such forgery cases were a concern as it tarnishes Bhutan’s image as a niche destination. “Such cases are mainly attributed to loopholes in the existing laws that need to be reviewed,” a tour operator said. “It’s a bad experience for tourists and affects the overall tourism industry.”

Kinga Dema