Earlier tour operators used to be very busy handling enquiries and reservations at this time of the year. The story today is different
While Bhutan’s peak tourist season from September to November last year was not as bountiful as it used to be, there is not much to look forward to for the coming peak season which begins with the Punakha Dromche that falls in the end of February. Stakeholders of the industry say that there will be very few tourists at the famed Punakha Dromche this year.
“We would be very busy at this time with several confirmed reservations coming in, so much so that I had to sometimes direct tourists to other companies,” a tour operator, who did not want to be named said. “This year, I have been just getting few enquiries without any confirmed reservations. There may not be any or very few dollar paying tourists at the Punakha Dromche this year,” he added.
The same was echoed by Sonam Dorji, executive director of the Association of Bhutanese tour operators (ABTO). “All we have been getting is inquiries and nothing else,” he said. Sonam Dorji also stated that tour agents in the country have received only around few confirmed tourists coming in for the Punakha Dromche. But a majority of these tourists are coming with the old Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) of USD 65
“There are no new bookings with the new SDF, However, there has been call and inquiries from tourist about the new fee,” he said, adding that though there is none currently, he is hopeful that there might be some bookings in the coming days.
He further stated that, based on the rate of reservations and bookings from travelers, it seems that there won’t be much visitor for the festival season.
Chairman of the guide association of Bhutan (GAB), Garab Dorji also shared similar concerns. “While the Punakha Dromche festival season is approaching, the majority of guides are currently unemployed and without a guest. We had anticipated welcoming some visitors, but there has been no response from the tour operator’s end; perhaps this is because the lengthy process makes it difficult for tourists to learn about the new policy,” he said, adding that, currently only few guide are engaged with Indian tourists.
President of Hotels and Restaurant Association of Bhutan, (HRAB), Sonam Maekey Penjor said that though the month of January is typically off-season for tourists, there used to be lot of pre-bookings for the festival season. “This time, with only one and a half months till the Punakha Dromche, there has been no hint of pre-booking or hotel reservations. Prior to the pandemic, the hotels used to get the reservation before six to three months of the festival,” he said, adding that, the hotel occupancy rate is very low, making it harder for hotels around the country to even sustain.
Another Tour Operator, who sought anonymity said that while the entire industry supported the increase in SDF to USD 200, “concerned agencies should begin and accelerate marketing.” “We knew that the revised SDF would hit us. But we also believe in making Bhutan a high end destination. We also know that there is a global recession, but there are many visiting neighboring countries. Experts of the industry, some of whom are expatriates earning a lot need to pull up their socks,” he said. “Technology should be harnessed to promote Bhutan and we do not see anything of the sort happening, though we are doing this at our own limited capacities,” he said. He added that there has also been few visitors paying the new SDF of USD 200. “With the new SDF of 200 USD, about 3,500 tourists visited Bhutan in a period of three months. It means that tourists will visit Bhutan. What is required at this moment is promotion and extensive marketing, which is not happening,” he said.
The paper could not contact anyone from the Department of Tourism (DoT), despite repeated attempts.
According to data from the DoT, since the borders were reopened on September 23, 2022, the country has seen close to 17,000 visitors. Out of these, the majority of the visitors were Indians and paid Nu 1,200; the remaining approximately 5,000 arrived via the old SDF, which cost USD 65.
Further, out of 14,429 tourists that were validated and approved at the previous rate of SDF 65 USD, by the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), now known as the Department of Tourism (DoT), under the Ministry of Industry, Commerce, and Employment, 4,816 tourists have already come. It means that there are 9,613 tourist left to come to Bhutan paying the old SDF.
According to the Bhutan tourism monitor report of 2020, the country received a total of 38,727 tourists in the month of February and March in 2020, while the number dropped to 15,687 in the same month of 2021, which was attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Tshering Pelden from Thimphu