Besides the news we also post old articles from the local papers/media on tourism issues. The articles are reproduced not because we support/promote the views expressed by the writers but only to raise more awareness and insights to pertinent issues that concern tourism development in our country. Our members too are encouraged to submit articles of interest to be posted here.
NEWS – September 27, 2018
The society was successfully launched on 27 September in Thimphu coinciding with the world tourism day. A diverse group of participants representing several government agencies, private agencies, donor partners, NGOs, journalists, tourism trainees, expatriates, local guides, hoteliers, etc..attended the launch.
Bhutan Sustainable Tourism Society launched
Reproduced below from Kuensel. Reporter Dechen Tshomo
To create a platform for all tourism sector agencies to come together in a common forum to share, inspire and support the growth of sustainable tourism in Bhutan, Bhutan Sustainable Tourism Society (BSTS) was launched in Thimphu yesterday, coinciding with World Tourism Day. The platform was conceptualised by an eco-tourism specialist, Karma Tshering, who has a PhD in tourism and more than 10 years of working experience in eco-tourism. Karma Tshering said the intention was to bring all diverse groups together to shape the future of tourism.
At a crossroads: Tourism development in Bhutan (Kuensel issue May 28, 2016 contributed by Karma Tshering, Tourism specialist. Founder of BSTS)
Having availed many years of work experience and research opportunities in the field of tourism and aware of the present concerns raised on the future of tourism I feel responsible to share my views. However, recognizing the complexity of tourism I would like to dwell only on the fixed minimum daily pricing system which seems to be the most contentious issue and probably have the maximum implication on the growth of tourism in our country.
Overview of some of the advantages in retaining the fixed minimum daily pricing system
- The demand for Bhutan as a travel destination is very high. However the limited carrying capacity due to the ecologically and culturally sensitive disposition of attractions and services means we are already close to achieving our upper limits of visitation numbers. When these numbers can be easily achieved with a minimum pricing why dismantle the pricing system. This will only mean achieving the higher numbers at a faster rate with cheaper costs offering less benefits and more negative impacts;
- The system has contributed in substantial revenue generation making it the highest contributor of foreign exchange and at the same time contributing to employment and prosperity of many of our own people;
- Besides the earnings from daily royalty deducted from the tour operators the transparency of the online system enables further substantial contributions through taxation. Removing the minimum tariff system would leave room for manipulation leading to lesser contribution through taxes.
- The present system makes it easier to enforce proper regulation and curb revenue leakage a major concern faced in many developing countries promoting tourism;
- It gives our own locals the advantage of having a stronger hold on our system limiting the external agents to exploit our resources.
- We have the advantage of seeing the problems created through a liberalized policy implemented for the regional tourists. Removing the minimum daily tariff will lead to further surge of mass tourism from other regional visitors presently paying the minimum tariff.
Tourism as many of us would agree offers immense potential to be a positive force for sustainable development but only under the precondition of sound planning and management. A retrospect into our nation’s tourism journey and one can only be inspired and grateful to the visionary leadership of the 4th Druk Gyalpo under whose enlightened guidance a cautious approach was adopted. This cautious policy not only generated substantial revenue but also shielded us from many of the negative impacts and pitfalls of tourism growth. We remain fortunate to enjoy this continued flow of both tangible and intangible benefits. Now we are at a critical time with continual debates the outcome of which is making me increasingly apprehensive over myopic decisions that could have far reaching implications to impair the future potential for tourism development. While there is general consensus on this cautious policy of ‘High value low impact’ there are differing views in its interpretation. In the interest of making quick benefits some are inclined to believe that the minimum pricing system has served its purpose and now become redundant. Conveniently people are beginning to delink the connection between the policy and the pricing system. What we must understand is that the policy is actually anchored by the minimum pricing system and they are part of each other and therefore liberalizing this system would only weaken the sustainability of tourism growth. We must realize that the high value low impact policy has been successful largely because of the pricing system. While differences arise between many stakeholders it seems to be more apparent between the tour operators and hoteliers. It is a misconception that this system only benefits the tour operator and that the hoteliers are completely in the hands of the tour operators. We need to be rationale to see a mutual benefit between the two. Hoteliers should not be misled to believe that the present system is crippling their growth and that a liberalized pricing system would be to their advantage. Essentially we have the opportunity to compare both the situation in practice. Having the pricing policy applied through the International visitors and a liberalized pricing system applied through the regional tourists. With both the situations happening concurrently we can see for ourselves the rising negative impacts becoming increasingly evident from a liberalized pricing system. Some hoteliers also claim that they are compelled to sell their rooms at rates to suit the tour operators. This problem can be addressed through the hotel and accommodation classification system implemented by TCB. Past studies on tourism has indicated that under-cutting (a practice of selling tours below the minimum daily rates) is a serious problem that needed to be contained. Ironically instead of looking into solutions to address this problem liberalizing the pricing system only means we are legalizing an unhealthy practice. No system is perfect and though there maybe some flaws with the current pricing system removing it entirely will only take away our tool for the long term sustainability of tourism development. The pricing system has helped us buy time to prepare our capacity in managing tourism development. Unfortunately while we may not have progressed far in strengthening our tourism product on the other hand the pricing system has effectively safeguarded our tourism resources. We have secured an image brand as one of the top travel destinations an envy for many countries. The government should not be deluded in thinking that sustainable tourism development can be achieved by merely increase in revenue through royalty and accomplishing set target arrival numbers. Sustainable tourism development requires achievements far beyond these indicators.
Considering all our advantages Bhutan has the best chance of being a model for sustainable tourism. We do not need to depend on any external consultants like the Mckinsey & Co making ludicrous recommendations without properly understanding the context of our tourism growth. We understand our situation best and the solution lies within our existing capacity. Tourism is a multi dimensional sector and it is only logical that the starting point for a successful journey to sustainable tourism is through effective partnerships and collaborations between all the stakeholders. We need to trust each other and enhance our communication. The sheer diversity of tourism involving people from different disciplines means a holistic or systematic approach is necessary.
In conclusion I would like to reiterate that too much time has gone on squabbling over the minimum pricing system. It’s time we gather our wisdom to acknowledge this as a valuable tool to be used for a sustainable tourism growth. Let us be prudent to appreciate the benefits we are reaping of a system founded on the visions of our 4th Druk Gyalpo. Removing the pricing system will only provoke mass tourism and cause irreparable damages impeding future sustainability. It is high time we focus our discussions and debates on other more meaningful issues to enhance sustainable tourism growth in our country.
Regional tourists’ vehicles still an issue (Kuensel issue 28 Nov, 2015)
The information and communications ministry is still looking for a possible solution to address the issue of regional tourists driving their own vehicles to visit Bhutan. At the question hour session of the Assembly yesterday, lyonpo D N Dhungyel said discussions are on with relevant agencies including those in the border towns. “Discussions are still going on,” lyonpo said, adding they have to look at various agreements signed between the two governments as well. Lyonpo also asked members to suggest possible solutions to help resolve the issue. Nubi-Tangsibji representative Nidup Zangpo said that with an increase in tourists visiting the country, regional tourists has also increased drastically. “Regional tourists driving their own vehicles is an issue for local taxi drivers following which the issue was raised with the information and communication ministry,” he said.
The other issue Nidup Zangpo raised was on doing away with the qualification for taxi drivers. On waiving the qualification for taxi drivers, lyonpo said the minimum qualification of grade eight was found necessary for drivers to be able to read the notifications, announcement and the road safety rules and regulations, among others. “This minimum qualification is required for drivers to help provide quality services and not to trouble them,” lyonpo said. In the supplementary question round, Nidup Zangpo said he was amused with the minister’s remarks on seeking solution to the issue from members. “We have a ministry for about 700,000 people who seeks solutions from the parliament members,” he said. He suggested that a viable solution would be to allow Bhutanese taxis ply in India like the Indian vehicles plying in Bhutan. Lyonpo D N Dhungyel clarified that he had only sought solutions for better outcome and did not mean that the ministry was incapable of addressing the issue. Lyonpo said the option he suggested has been explored and they are looking at ways to incorporate it. Lyonpo however, welcomed the North Thimphu representative Kinga Tshering’s suggestion. Kinga Tshering suggested that any vehicles entering Bhutan be made mandatory to pay green tax like Bhutanese vehicles. “While we can’t stop the vehicles, we should levy the green tax progressively,” he said. For instance, Kinga Tshering said that Bhutanese pay Nu 50,000 as green tax for vehicles worth about Nu 200,000. This, he said translates to Nu 500,000 as tax for which commercially one bears Nu 50,000 a year as green tax considering the life of a vehicle as 10 years. “Any such vehicle entering the country can be charged Nu 200 a day,” he said.
Lyonpo Damcho Dorji said that the Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal (BBIN) transport agreement would help resolve such issues. The BBIN agreement, lyonpo said categorizes the number of vehicles and types, among others, which would not allow all vehicles into the country. Meanwhile, the Bumdeling- Jamkhar representative Dupthob said that Bhutanese living abroad have always requested for facilities to be able to keep a Forex account in the local banks and to be able to also send postal ballots during the next election. “What is the government trying to do to address this issue?” he said. Lyonpo Damcho Dorji said that opening a USD account is not an issue but withdrawing in dollars from it is an issue as it contravenes the existing financial rules and regulations. This, lyonpo said could affect the country’s foreign exchange reserve and also lead to money laundering. “We are working on it for a possible solution as the issue was raised to me and the prime minister as well during our visits to the US,” lyonpo said.
Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden eggs (reproduced from Kuensel issue dated 28 Nov, 2015. Contributed by Sonam Dendup, Bhutan Swallowtail Travel Company).
This is in response to the National Council’s recent recommendation on the liberalization of the daily tourism tariff.
The fact that there has been a steady increase in the number of new tour operators over the years, from a mere single digit in the 1970’s to about 1,700 hundred tour operators today, shows the present tourism policy was never confined to a select few. Four years ago, I along with my six friends was out of job and exploring business ideas. The tourism policy and regulations were so conducive and protective that we all went into the tourism business. Thanks to the “high value low impact policy” it not only benefited the country but us too, being new in the market with no capital and only with some researched data in hand. The tourism industry was never confined to few but was open for all interested and each had their share of the pie depending on their hard work and quality of services delivered.
Now, how certain are we and from which angle does one get the assurance that if the daily tourism tariff is liberalized, the number of tourists visiting Bhutan will fairly be distributed amongst all the 1,700 tour operators? If this is not a personal assumption then there must be a mathematical solution whereby the liberalization of the daily tariff will equate to fair distribution of tourist to all concerned parties. And, even if this holistic fabulous approach succeeds, are we encouraging a healthy competition and creating a level playing field among the players in the market? Or will this make the well established few tour companies with their own fleet of cars and hotels all over the places take the edge over the middle and small/new tour companies by offering the lowest price to the tourists? With the price into play and a consumer’s basic instinct to go for the lowest price, will this not knock out the middle and small/new tour companies off the tourism industry for good?
The more danger also lies in the background, which is even bleaker. Let us not forget our country getting run down by mass tourism with negative impact on the environment and community. Let us also consider the frightening impact it will have on our fragile youth as a result of cheap tourism and influx of poor quality tourists. Can we afford to turn a blind eye on the negative impacts of this liberalization?
Similar concerns were shared by all of the people I met and they also voiced the same unease. While I appreciate the National Council’s Economic Affairs Committee and their initiative for equitable socio-economic development, such recommendations also makes me doubt a little on whether there are any vested interests based on the select people and those from the tourism industry who called and applauded the recommendations. Let us not murder this highly prized tourism industry (even widely appreciated in the international market for its noble tourism policy) as a result of some good orators, just because they can make valid opinions to an apparently ‘doing very well, no change required’ situation. If we are to make any changes in the current policy, let us be practical and be fully convinced to apply for change in the larger interest of the country. It is interesting to note that some of our learned and Honorable Members of the National Council are expecting to bear fruits after cutting down the tree from the roots. “When prices become competitive, tour operators will come up with many tourism products from various parts of the country, which would actually benefit areas not touched until now,” Zhemgang Councilor was quoted saying. If the prices were to play, I would rather focus on areas and products with less time and resources to bring down the cost. I would rather promote Thimphu and Paro only as there are many choices in hotels, especially regarding room rates, well developed infrastructure and avoid additional transportation cost. If I was to promote far flung areas like Lhuentshi and Zhemgang then the overall cost of the tour package will be high, whereas I can easily convince the tourists to spend their (already) limited time in Thimphu, Paro and the nearby regions.
Tourist actually come to experience the unique culture of Bhutan and I can easily promote remote villages of Thimphu, Paro, Haa, Punakha and Wangdue valleys as they also have a lot to offer in terms of traditional authentic Bhutan experience and its not as necessary to take them to the east or central parts of the country. Having said that, until now, the price of the tour package (daily tariff) never interfered in the itineraries I designed for my guests. Depending on their time, my guests could visit all the places both near, far and remote, because I want my guests to experience and explore as many places as possible within their time frame since the prevailing daily tariff is more than enough to cover all of their expenses and more.
Now, if the liberalization of the daily tourism tariff comes through I may as well prepare myself for the oncoming war with other tour operators solely based on the prices. However, on the other hand, if the liberalization does not come through and if we don’t need to compete with the prices, we can then think of competing in other ways. One main focus can be in improving and diversification of various tourism products to attract and uphold Bhutan as a unique holiday destination.
I have been in the industry for the last four years. Since the daily tariff is fixed and regulated, my focus was on quality improvement and product diversification. Also since tourists are aware of this fixed daily tariff, there is no time lost in negotiating and haggling the costs! Instead we focus on creating a unique and quality experience worth the dollars. I earnestly request all members of the Parliament to consider all concerns and the impact of such a recommendation, so that, such irreversible policy change will not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Bhutan better off with the current daily tourist tariff (reproduced from Kuensel issue dated 28 Nov, 2015. Contributed by Phuntsho Norbu, Tour Operator)
In the wake of the recent spate of discussions on the possibility of revising the country’s current tourism policy (i.e. liberalizing the daily minimum tourist tariff ), many of us are left anxious and worried. Assuming that the Parliament endorses the recommendations, it’s disconcerting to even imagine the ramifications of sudden influx of tourists in the country. It would open the floodgates for mass tourism and subject the country to the onslaught of its harsh influences, even with the government royalty intact. And we should know that we will be no match for our neighbours if we play the mass tourism game.
Even as we wonder what transpired the revision of tourism policy, we learn that, according to National Council’s Economic Affairs Committee, the current tourism policy may have “outlived” its purpose. This comes as a slap in the face, knowing all well the current policy’s decades of proven success as the bedrock of the tourism industry in the country. The committee also felt that the government’s grip on tourism needed to be loosened. The year-long study thus ensued and policy recommendations made in an attempt to make it more relevant and efficient. Notwithstanding the good intentions, it appears that the committee’s justification for doing away with the daily tariff (price-floor) is rather misplaced. The move is understood to be aimed at micromanaging tourism in the country when it is best left to the stakeholders. Speculations are rife that the proponents (among the stakeholders) of the policy change are bent on making it happen for reasons arising from petty grudges and envy, mostly targeted towards tour operators (TO). Some also suggest that there might be a more sinister motive behind these recommendations. However, we must still fully understand the risk of such major policy change, keeping in mind the larger interests of the nation. The crux of the argument is that the lynchpin of the country’s sustainability as a top tourist destination is its “exclusivity,” which is largely defined by the current daily tariff policy, and it must be preserved.
We are witnessing a steady increase of both tariff paying and regional tourists. In fact, it may even be suggested that the daily minimum tariff be increased, while regulating regional tourists, so as to stay true to the “high value-low impact” policy. Of the nine-point recommendations, the prospect of doing away with the current policy’s minimum tariff appears to be most contentious, particularly since sustainability of the tourism industry is in question. While the benefits are obvious and have been aggressively touted by certain quarters, we have not been honest with ourselves to analyze and understand the full extent of the potential damage of such a grave move. Yes, however efficient the current policy may have been, we must also recognize its setbacks and be willing to evolve as needed. Whether it is perceived or actual, limitations do exist with the current policy, absence of tourism Act being the main problem. Unregulated regional tourism; seasonality problems; lack of flexibility; uneven distribution of tourism benefits; and the practice of undercutting are just some of the other issues with the industry. These issues, no doubt, need attention; but tough problems demand creative solutions, and it’s not right to look for an easy way out. While a robust, but dynamic tourism bill is expected to solve most of these problems, liberalizing the daily tariff will prove to be counterproductive rendering all other recommendations meaningless. With the move, first we set ourselves to destroy our fragile culture and then run the risk of becoming acutely dependent on the volatile tourism industry; how smart is that for a country?
It is most crucial to understand what sells Bhutan. Is our culture and traditions resilient enough to withstand changes brought about by tourism? We may have the beautiful mountains, the fanciest of hotels, and provide the best of services, but they will never be the reasons to come to Bhutan. It’s not the picturesque landscape alone that allures people. Let’s not kid ourselves; there are many beautiful places all around the world. But it is the pristine Himalayan landscape peppered with this exotic culture and the people that the discerning travelers find most intriguing. The moment we lose this allure, we drop down the list of desirable places to travel to; simply put, we lose our edge over our neighboring countries, which are less expensive and far easier to get to. Our unique culture is our tourism mainstay. With a small population, there is bound to be cultural erosion with increasing tourism influence. Locals too would become jaded (if not tourist phobic), besides growing dependent on tourism, and then all the authentic offerings are out of the window. This alone is a good enough reason for discerning and mindful travelers to consider not traveling to Bhutan. Of course, these factors may not be as important if Bhutan were a larger country like our neighbors.
It’s an accepted fact that increase in tourism influence also encourages callous activities like sex tourism. Across the industry, we are already seeing random cases of tourists seeking sexual services. The more tourists we get, the more difficult it becomes for us to monitor such illicit behaviors. Taxes too cannot be regulated if liberalized. The lost revenue in taxes for the government would negate financial gains. The pressing issue is the growing unregulated regional tourism in the country. In the last two to three years, the country has seen unprecedented growth in tourist arrivals from the region, particularly from India. Not to downplay their [regional tourists] contribution to the country’s economy, but in the absence of regional tourism policy, it has resulted in regional tourists/travel groups engaging in wanton acts, often jeopardizing their own and others experience in the country. Regardless of where the tourists come from, they must be encouraged to experience and understand Bhutan for what it is, and that can be achieved only through policy intervention.
All regional tourists should sit through country orientation (covering cultural sensitivity, safety, trash issues, etc.) at the point of entrance; hire a licensed tour guide; and pay entrance fees at the dzongs for local guides are only some of the recommendations making the rounds. As much as we want to avoid seasonality, by virtue of being situated in the Himalayas north of India, people know that summer is wet and winter is cold here. We may try, but we cannot change that fact! It’s also given that most people avoid the extreme and choose to come during Spring and Autumn.
Freeing the daily tariff all across the year will only exacerbate the problems during the traditional tourist seasons. As it is, the arrivals have only been increasing year after year (perhaps with an exception of this year, attributing to the April earthquake in Nepal, which also goes to show how volatile tourism industry is). Hotels get oversold during the period, and we have seen many festivals overrun by tourists, which is a concern for both tourists and locals alike.
Hotels have their grievances, which are partly self inflicted, for which they call the industry sick. The problem of low occupancy rate originates from seasonality problem. It however seems necessary to have some policy intervention to even the spread of tourist arrivals in the country. As controversial as it is, perhaps, a refined version of last year’s Thai promotion can be looked into to help achieve just that.