Coneversation Report: Tourism in Bhutan

The Conversation on “Tourism in Bhutan” was held on October 28, 2019 – attended by government officials, parliamentarians, political parties, media, CSOs, international agencies, independent observers, tour operators, hoteliers, guides association, travel agents.

The Conversation is an informal exchange among people who care for Bhutan, who understand Bhutan’s interests, this time looking specifically at tourism – current trends and long-term policy.

Bhutan is concerned about the changing trends in tourism, to the extent that His Majesty The King mentioned the vision of High Value Low Volume in two recent Royal Addresses.

The editorial and 17 articles in The Druk Journal on “Tourism in Bhutan” raise many important points:

  • Bhutan as a Brand – what’s happening?
  • Are we letting High Value Low Volume slide into mass tourism?
  • Sacred places – pilgrims outnumbered by tourists.
  • Transport – uncontrolled
  • Hotels – explosion in numbers.
  • Ecotourism – concept lost.
  • Impact – emergence of sex workers
  • What has tourism done for Bhutan? Made a few people in Thimphu rich.
  • The journal also covers tourism in India and Nepal and the Chinese, Japanese, western tourists who visit South Asia and Bhutan.
  • Who is accountable? We cannot blame tourists when we made the decisions to let the trends grow?

The Conversation is not meant to be a complaining session. On the eve of a new policy, we are looking for ideas, suggestions, recommendations… For Bhutan, our very survival is at stake.

Observations/ideas/recommendations raised during the Conversation

Parties are driven by political interests, political sensitivities – not taking “unpopular” decisions.

The vision of our Monarchs (High value, low volume) is deteriorating into mass tourism. Mass tourism has gained a negative reputation among the general public.

Is overcrowding of sites is more of an issue than mass tourism?

The downside of a democracy is that voters influence politicians. So need a clear policy to support the long-term vision. For safety, hygiene, comfort and experience.

  • The government needs to be bold with policy.
  • Can’t hold a ransom on the policy.
  • Special interest groups must not influence national policy. National policy cannot be driven by tour operators, guides, hoteliers.
  • Different agencies approve hotels of different categories without coordination. E.G. 3 star and above – TCB; 2 star and below MOEA.
  • Budget hotels driving the regional tourist market. Need to address that.
  • Need partnership and solidarity between key stakeholders.
  • Stop unwanted practices like undercutting.
  • Budget travellers crowding spiritual and scenic sites – discouraging high end tourists.
  • Introduce fees and regulations etc. to level the playing field.
  • Vast numbers brought to Bhutan through social media. Need the regulations to address that and take steps.
  • Offer day hikes from existing lodges and villages. Most scenic spots are not on the trek routes. Treks are great going from point to point.
  • All Bhutanese must take ownership and responsibility.
  • Increase in tourists leads to an increase in waste.
  • Work with communities and incentivise, right from the planning stage.
  • Villagers aren’t stakeholders in the tourism industry so, why would they pick up other people’s trash.
  • Sacred places overcrowded – regional tourists not coming with guides.
  • Tourists come out of curiosity. Bhutanese come on pilgrimage.
  • Not to let tourists into Lhakhang without the koengey.
  • Even monks need training. How to manage… how to limit numbers. How to handle toilets and manage waste?
  • No loud music and noise.
  • Some monks are keeping the Lhakhang open for late visitors who pay.
  • Transport critical but unplanned and uncontrolled. Must find a way to use more Bhutanese vehicles.
  • Propose to take tourists in groups to control pollution, noise, etc.
  • Recommend various methods, more than educating and upscaling guides (dos and don’ts pamphlets, signs, etc), fine tourists and the local counterparts for violation. Counters and guides… brief about do’s and don’t’s.
  • Hotel industry in agreement with the use of guides for regional tourists.
  • Hotels have the biggest loans and are also the biggest private sector employers. They only take 8% of the tourism revenue, most are taken by tour operators.
  • Hotels have 33 billion loans from banks. Average occupancy – 38%. 560 budget hotels.
  • Abuse of the people working on the ground – Exploitation… waiters/ waitresses. Labour without a shift system.
  • Non certified restaurants and bars.
  • Train monks/nuns. Take care of antiques.
  • Study the carrying capacity of existing cultural sites and accordingly open more to ease the congestion.
  • Open other monasteries to tourists, with improved infrastructures and high security.
  • Collection from monument fees be regulated and monitored and made public and transparent.
  • Limit the number of visitors allowed in a day at any tourist attraction.
  • Visas be regulated depending upon the type of places they want to visit
  • Regional permits must be regulated and strict control on western regions.
  • Hold public consultation on the draft policy of tourism especially with the stakeholders
  • National policy and related discussions on tourism be put up in the Parliament for debate to take appropriate decision for the benefit of the country.

Have local guides who will have expertise and ownership as well. The importance of guides…as cultural interpreters. Specialised guides by language and culture. Have guides with tourists and guides who are local specialists. Area specific guides know better than national guides. Regional tourists use them. Local knowledge is incorporated. People begin to think that it’s important. Feedback into an educational loop that helps with specialists.

Management of the spaces are critical. Management means governance in a comprehensive sense, with cross-sector partnerships. E.G. Singapore is half the size of Paro but accommodates 18 million tourists per year.

For example, now there’s a management plan for Punakha dzong. Its good for the government, dratshang, tourism (TCB, ABTO, GAB, HAB, etc.) to work together on drafting good management plans/strategies.

Management plans needed for every site and also for every spiritual site. Phobjikha – monastery being overwhelmed by coffee bars and gift shops, towered over by hotels etc..

There are two schools of thought – to charge or not to charge for entry. Those who are spiritually inclined say no… planners say yes.

Japanese example. Mt Fuji is a sacred mountain. It became overrun after becoming a world/national heritage site. Now charging fees. Taj Mahal is charging fees to control numbers.

Do we need to open every space up? Need to research the locations.

Focus on Bhutanese visitors. There are spiritual sites in the remotest corners.

OK to charge fees. Need to assess capacity. To sustain such a structure. Charge a fee.

Bhutan named as No. 1 destination. Countries spending millions to reach no 1. Pride ourselves in getting these awards… but are we deserving? Can we live up to the expectations? Have we done enough? It is a challenge to show that we are deserving.

Ecotourism. People are at the centre of everything. Working with communities. Eco tourism picked up. Conservation is about research. Tourism really matters. Bhutan Sustainable Tourism Society.

Tourism is concentrated in short visits in only three locations (Paro, Thimphu and Punakha) So there is a huge potential for unexplored places and different seasons. Revenue generation should be equally distributed in all dzongkhags -not just the three locations. Geographically and seasonally we can spread. Revenue generated should be equally distributed among all the dzongkhags. We’re not even covering 15% of locations. Seasonal spread – huge opportunity. Other places and seasons.

Nature and culture: Culture  – e.g. Tiger’s Nest. Tourism contributing negative impacts. It’s a wake-up call – stress on management.

Nature – e.g. Phobjikha – Many hotels. No waste management. Ecotourism not working. B&Bs not succeeding. Helicopter disturbing the Black Necked Crane.

Lyonpo Tandin Dorji , Chair of TCB

  • Assure you that the government is serious about a good policy and good management in place.
  • Government is working hard. Bhutan must have only one policy; high value, low volume (keeping Bhutan as a high end destination and accommodating at the carrying capacity)
  • TCB and Government are not separate.
  • The numbers need to be capped.
  • Officially Phuentsholing is the only point of exit/entry.
  • There is a proposal to open up more entry/exit but need to think of the security of the country
  • Disagree about the seasonality of tourism.
  • Agree on charging a premium for places like Taktshang.
  • This is a discussion that needs to go on.
  • After the Dochula incident, people expect decisions to be made overnight. Government decisions are not taken overnight. TCB has come up with the policies. Ball is in government’s court. I’ve talked to all the stakeholders. All these concerns have been heard loud and clear.
  • Need to put in a good policy and a good management guideline in place.
  • If policy states that every tourist has to pay a fee, they must. Everyone must pay the royalty $65. Follow the same policy. How much are we going to charge? SDF? Open for discussions. Capping numbers during certain times of the year.
  • Opportunity for high paying tourists to go east because its open.  Entry, exit points being discussed with India.
  • Be sensitive to the thinking of our neighbors, they agreed in principle that we need to limit, so need better management. Management system should evolve from the policy we’re discussing.
  • India Bhutan agreement states that P/ling is the only entry/exit point for tourists and Indians.
  • Open up two more locations for international tourists. Should we let in Indian tourists as well? Consider our security of the country.
  • Seasonality – remove it. Ensure enough activities and products. Low seasons.
  • Some good suggestions, new to us, take this forward at the TCB and government level. Have the policy ready in January. These suggestions will be taken very seriously when we hold our bilateral discussions.
  • Visitors must receive good services – not be insensitive to our culture, and have a safe, good experience. So Bhutan is truly a good place to visit.