Domestic tourism kicks off amid skepticism

To soften the blows caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) has come up with the idea of domestic tourism in the country.

However, most stakeholders in the tourism industry suggest that the development of unique product offerings is required for the domestic tourism initiative.

With the first COVID-19 case confirmed in Bhutan from March 6 this year, the government put in place a ban on all incoming tourists, initially for two weeks and extended until further notice.

Due to the tourist ban, a revenue of more than 90% of the 2019 earnings was foregone – US$ 345mn: US$ 88mn of foreign exchange earnings, and US$ 23mn from direct revenue contribution of about 315,599 tourists.

Meanwhile, TCB refers to domestic tourism as a trip undertaken by a resident within Bhutan, individually or in a group for any leisure activity.

The goal of domestic travel is to slowly revive tourism and generate socio-economic benefit, especially by engaging those displaced by COVID-19 pandemic, according to TCB.

Additionally, TCB recommends travelers to use professional service providers for safety and better experience for leisure activities namely trekking, hiking, hot springs and hot stone baths, rafting, swimming, horse riding, camping cycling, pilgrimage, bird watching, helicopter rides, and others.

TCB is also working on a pilgrimage product called Druk Nyekor, which will promote 108 sacred sites in Bhutan, connecting Bhutan through pilgrimage tours.

However, the TCB notified on October 9 that those interested to travel within Bhutan and those organizing and facilitating such travel through domestic tourism is permitted under certain conditions but people are requested to adhere to the health ministry’s COVID-19 health advisory and travel requirements.

Moreover, the travelers are required to adhere to any other safety protocols instituted by the respective local government.

Special conditions apply if the tour is more than four nights and passes through communities, especially remote settlements. A tour with a maximum of 15 people for any group tour, including pilgrimage needs to be registered with TCB.

However, TCB has not targeted any revenue or number of domestic tourists and is in the process of streamlining the procedure and facilitating by working with other relevant agencies.

Additionally, TCB  would look into the targets once the travel conditions are relaxed and domestic tourism picks up  and currently, the agency targets promoting travel to low risk areas.

TCB requests relevant agencies to support domestic travel and also seeks their support in monitoring domestic travel.

“We hope that domestic tourism would help some of the businesses in the tourism industry but the number would not match with the international tourists,” said Board Director, Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators, Rabsel Dorji, adding that international tourists tip Nu 200 to 300 hundred thousand a year and domestic tourism is relatively small.

Currently, he said Bhutanese prefer pilgrimage besides trekking and hiking however, there are those who demand and are interested in camping and trekking.

There is a need for product diversification, improvement in the product quality, infrastructure, services and marketing in domestic tourism, said Rabsel Dorji.

“The entire economy of the country is hit and not many people would be interested to spend in other tourism activities apart from pilgrimage, however, there is opportunity for entrepreneurs and businesses in the long term,” he said.

“It is an eye opener for most of the hoteliers to look at different avenues and not only be focused on international tourist offerings,” said Chairman, Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan, Sonam Wangchuk adding that most of the hotels are offering the same experiences with no unique offerings.

For example, he said local people travel to the camping sites in Paro and Phobjikha during the weekends and weekdays with family to experience the wilderness, sleeping in tent and showering in tent without compromising the level of comfort of hotels and resorts.

“The government should focus on diversifying the products and it is not to be taken as a one-time lesson; we have to look into the potential of the hotels that can offer better experiences,” said Sonam Wangchuk.

Chairman of the Guide Association of Bhutan Garab Dorji said the guides would be engaged and if domestic tourism is routed through tour operators and guides, locals are going to learn and know more.

Additionally, he said dozens of guides are engaged in trekking and hiking earning Nu 1,000 to Nu 1,500 from each person and to be hired, they are getting equipment rental from tour operators.

During this time, most of the Bhutanese prefer religious tours rather than culture and others since only those with income can afford the latter, said Garab Dorji.

There were 46.82% or 210,801 individuals having engaged in domestic overnight travels in the country in 2019, according to the domestic and outbound tourism survey 2019.

However, the majority of the overnight trips took place for visiting friends and relatives followed by health and medical care.

About 17.95% had visited for holiday or leisure, and only about 12% visited for pilgrimage, among other reasons and mostly in Thimphu.

In 2019, the domestic overnight visitors recorded a total expenditure of Nu 5,913mn, which is a significant contribution or spending given the relatively unknown or informal domestic tourism situation in the country.

TCB estimates that more than 50,000 Bhutanese or 6% of the population and 16% of the working population are engaged in the tourism sector.

There are more than 3,000 travel agencies, 160 TCB-certified hotels (3-5 stars), 665 budget (or non-certified) hotels and over 4,200 restaurants and cafes in Bhutan.

Thukten Zangpo from Thimphu