The increasing number of regional tourists visiting Bhutan in the past few years has worried industry players, who fear that the influx could have an adverse impact on the arrival of dollar paying tourists and as well as on the image of Bhutan as a high end travel destination.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) is currently working on a regional tourist strategy to streamline regional tourists and series of measures are being considered to regulate the inflow of regional tourists.
Speaking to Business Bhutan, the economic affairs minister, Lyonpo Lekey Dorji, said TCB and other tourism stakeholders have agreed that all regional tourists should come through a ground handler, a hotel or tour operator and should be accompanied by professional guides.
“The visitors should get their entry permits and route permits online through their ground handlers before they embark on the journey,” said Lyonpo. “The online system developed in collaboration with the Department of immigration is ready to be launched.”
Lyonpo said the proposal now is that regional tourists will be given a choice to get entry permits online or apply for it in person at a border immigration office until the end of December 2016.
This period would be used to study, fix bugs and analyse issues and allow time for potential regional tourists to get used to this system. During this time TCB will work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to sensitize the tour operators across the borders and government counterparts in West Bengal, India.
However, Lyonpo said it would be mandatory for regional tourists to get online permit through ground handlers by January 2017. “This is how we plan to streamline and regulate the regional tourism industry,” said Lyonpo.
The visitors from Bangladesh, India and Maldives are referred as regional tourists. They are exempt from paying the minimum daily tariff of USD 250 for peak and USD 200 for the lean seasons.
The number of regional tourists visiting Bhutan has steadily increased over the years. Last year alone, 62.91% (97,584) of all arrivals in the country comprised regional tourists. Out of this, 92.98% of them were from India, 7.84% were from Bangladesh, and 0.07% came from Maldives. In 2013, 63,426 regional tourists visited Bhutan while 65, 399 came in 2014. As of April this year, 33,397 regional tourists have visited Bhutan.
Lyonpo Lekey Dorji said due to the growing popularity of Bhutan as a destination, arrivals from India and Bangladesh have increased rapidly in the last few years.
Lyonpo said this means regional tourists are competing for and crowding the same facilities and attractions as the dollar paying tourists. “There is now a growing concern for the safety of the unguided regional tourists. There have been incidences of tragic deaths that could have been avoided,” Lyopno said.
A prominent tour operator under conditions of anonymity said the overcrowding has started in tourist destinations and certainly it is not fair that tariff paying tourists are vying for space with the regional tourists that need not pay any upfront fee. “Some of the remedies to control regional tourists would be to streamline the visiting procedures, for instance mandate them to use a ground handler,” he said.
Talking about the tourism industry’s carrying capacity coupled with poor infrastructure, economic affairs minister Lekey Dorji said TCB would be undertaking a detailed carrying capacity study soon, and envisage our revised economic development policy to encourage development of tourist category accommodations all over the country.
“The fiscal incentives would be greater for those proposals at rural places. To enable greater comforts to our tourists, fiscal incentives for procuring coaster buses and other tourist category vehicles will continue,” said Lyonpo.