A New Chapter in Bhutan’s Tourism Chronicle

A New Chapter in Bhutan’s Tourism Chronicle

Bhutan Yarden Tours and Treks brought 600 pax of tourists at one go- the highest in Bhutan’s Tourism history

Beginning May 21, 2023, 600 regional (Indian) tourists came together and in 32 buses visited Bhutan. In the five days that they were in Bhutan, they visited Paro, Punakha and Thimphu, before exiting from Phuentsholing on May 25, 2023. This is history in Bhutan’s Tourism chronicle, for 600 pax have never come together. And behind this remarkable feat is Bhutan Yarden Tours and Treks, a tour company based in Thimphu.

The person behind this is Karma Wangdi, proprietor and chief executive officer (CEO) of Yarden Tours, who shared that all the 600 tourists were from the South Indian state of Chennai and that a significant portion of the group consisted of the elderly seeking recreational experiences.

Yarden is not a new player in the tourism industry. It opened shop in 2004. Reflecting on the current “milestone”, Karma Wangdi, shared that he initially focused on foreign tourists but gradually expanded to attract regional tourists. “Before, as there were no packages tailored specifically for Indian tourists, they would visit Bhutan without specific arrangements,” he said. Beginning 2011, Yarden Tours began designing exclusive packages for Indian tourists, leading to a significant increase in their numbers.

Meanwhile, this comes at a time when the country continues to grapple with a decline in tourist arrivals.

Karma Wangdi said that a significant amount of revenue was generated through the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF), amounting to approximately Nu 3.6 million ngultrum (mn) over the five-day period.

“Additionally, each tourist spent an average of Nu 2,500 daily on recreational activities such as rafting in Punakha, visiting parks in Paro, and paying entrance fees to monumental sites,” he said.

The regional tourists were comfortably accommodated in 32 coaster buses, each accompanied by a dedicated tour guide.

Meanwhile, during their visit to Paro, the CEO recalled a challenging moment when the tourists required 30-35 cases/cartoons of mineral water. However, the scarcity of such a large quantity of water became apparent, as it was not readily available in one or two shops.

Based on rough calculations, Karma said that local shops, rafting businesses, and monument sites collectively earned around Nu 7.5 mn from the 600 tourists. Karma Wangdi clarified that the Nu 2,500 expenditure did not include hotel charges and transportation expenses. Moreover, Karma Wangdi said that approximately 15-17 hotels in Thimphu were fully occupied by the 600 tourists.

“The cost of booking a hotel in Thimphu ranged between Nu 4,800 and Nu 5,000 per day for two people,” he said.

Consequently, Thimphu’s hotels managed to generate roughly Nu 7.4 mn during the tourists’ five-day stay.

The 600 tourists divided their time among Paro, Punakha, and Thimphu, exploring the attractions in each location. That means the business owners of Punakha, Paro and Thimphu including the Thimphu’s 15-16 hotels earned around Nu 14mn in the five days from 600 Indian tourist.

In addition to exploring the natural and cultural wonders of Bhutan, many tourists took advantage of the opportunity to purchase gold from the country. Karma Wangdi said that the tourists found gold in Bhutan to be significantly cheaper than in India. However, he wasn’t sure how much the tourists would have bought.

The Department of Tourism (DoT) had authorized tourists to purchase up to 20 grams of gold from duty free shops in Bhutan, provided they fulfilled certain conditions. These conditions include paying the SDF, presenting a receipt for at least one night’s stay in a DoT-certified hotel, making the gold purchase in USD, and submitting photocopies of passports or voter identity cards.

The 600 tourists who arrived on May 21 departed last Thursday, May 25, marking their five-day visit to Bhutan.

Additionally, Karma Wangdi said that the tourists have played a significant role in securing the future prospects of his agency. He strategically advertised his packages in the Indian language in Dochula, effectively explaining the packages tailored for Indian tourists.

 “After that, I have been receiving a lot of calls from Indians inquiring about the packages,” he said. He further explained that creating packages for large groups of tourists is particularly appealing to Indian travelers, as they prefer to travel in larger numbers. They also feel more secure.

While many stakeholders of the Tourism industry applaud what Karma Wangdi has managed to do, few said that bringing in such a group could also lead to issues, such as quality of service. Though Karma claimed that all his guests were satisfied, a stakeholder of the tourism industry said that when such a pax comes, all may not get the same service. “For instance, all may not get the same kind of hotel; quality guides and other services, which are very important,” he said. Nonetheless, he said there is no question concerning the benefits accrued by all in the tourism and hospitality industry.   

Meanwhile, the government is on the verge of considering a Sunset Clause for the tourism industry as part of its efforts to revive and reach pre-pandemic tourism levels by 2025.

This would involve offering discounts and exemptions to encourage tourist engagement.

 The National Assembly of Bhutan’s (NAB) legislative scrutiny defines Sunset Clauses as mechanisms that set an expiration date for legislation.

These clauses are often combined with review clauses, linking the expiration to a review conducted by the Parliament or the Government. The purpose of the review is to determine whether the law should be allowed to expire or if a postponement is necessary.

Meanwhile, tourism stakeholders are optimistic about the potential impact of the sunset clause in revitalizing the industry and bringing it back to pre-pandemic levels in the near future.

Tshering Pelden from Thimphu