Tour operators recommend improving existing trails rather than investing in new ones

Tourism: The Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) is not yet sure where the 11 new trekking routes, announced by the Prime Minister recently, will be located as part of the Visit Bhutan year.

TCB officials said they have not received any instructions from lyonchhoen Tshering Tobgay, who is also the chairman of the council’s board and that new trekking routes are not in the plan either. Even the 11th Plan document on tourism only mentions the development of two new routes to the existing 31.

Lyonchhoen at the closing of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) conference in Thimphu on February 6 announced that the new trekking routes would be opened this year besides hiring of helicopters for tourists and organic farming as part of the Visit Bhutan year.

The government could not be reached for comment.

The announcement comes at a time when the existing popular trekking routes in the country are in dire need of maintenance plagued by a host of issues. Opening of new routes, tour operators said was good news but the existing routes required further improvement with facilities along the trails.

Facilities include toilets, proper campsites, and mapping of the routes that are missing at present.

Development of a new trekking route is estimated to cost about Nu 1M while maintenance costs are estimated to be between Nu 30,000 to Nu 150,000. After TCB receives a proposal for maintenance of a particular route, the cost estimate is done after which budget is sanctioned to the gewog, dzongkhag or park services under which the route falls.

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.

Tour operators said most tourists complain that trekking in Bhutan was not worth what they paid owing to the garbage filled trails and lack of infrastructure or development along the trails.

The Bhutan tourism monitor 2013 also cited lack of public toilet facilities and restrooms along highways, trekking trails and campsites as frequent complaints from tourists.

Trekking in Bhutan is a 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.

Despite the same minimum daily tariff of USD 250 and 200 during the peak and lean season for both cultural and trekking tourists, tour operators said it was easier to sell cultural tour packages owing to such issues.

Most tour operators have not been able to tap trekking as a tourism product despite the huge potential. Save for some old travel agencies that are able to provide all trekking facilities, majority are not able to provide the required services for a hassle free trekking experience.

Rather than trekking, tour operators said walking trips or hiking was picking up.

“During the peak season, we’ve to rush to reach a campsite before other trekkers get there as the camp sites are packed owing to limited areas for camping,” a tour operator said.

Despite the annual increase in international visitors, records with TCB show a gradual increase in trekking tourists 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 while in 2013 about 2,943 of the total international arrivals were for trekking.

By Kinga Dema