Building a better economy through ecotourism

Nature and culture being two main attractions for tourists visiting Bhutan, nature-based tourism accounting for only 12% of the tourism activities in the country is yet to be explored.

Tourism in Bhutan is dominated by cultural attractions namely, Tsechus, Dzongs and monasteries that account for 90% of the tourist arrivals, according to the Bhutan Tourism Monitor, 2019.

The Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) conducted the live sixth Tourism Bhutan Dialogue expert session yesterday on ‘Ecotourism’ to look into the opportunities, challenges, and recommendations to develop Ecotourism.

Talking at the dialogue, Ngawang Gyeltshen, Program Coordinator, United Nation Development Program, said the world is booming with eco-tourists. “As a carbon negative country, Bhutan has enormous potential to capitalize on eco-tourism,” he said, adding that Bhutan is known as an exclusive destination  for culture.

He said in tourism, only financing and revenue should not be considered but the cost of inaction- the cost of not doing ecotourism- should be taken into account.

Founder of Dhumra Farm Resort, a Punakha based on agro-tourism, another panellist, T. Sangay Wangchuk said ecotourism in Bhutan started in the 1980s to combat the negative impacts left by mainstream tourism. ”Mainstream tourism focuses only on income and growth while eco-tourism would counter-check this.”

“High value, low volume tourism policy is the foundation of eco-tourism,” said T. Sangay Wangchuk , a111111dding that the policy has been around since the 1970s.

“Eco-tourism is an opportunity for Bhutan to minimise negative impact of tourism, revitalize connection to nature and culture, promote equal distribution of income, upgrade living standard, balance rural to urban migration, create employment, and provide unique experiences to tourists and hosts,” he added.

Ngawang Gyeltshen said mass tourism possesses the risk of damaging the environment through activities like littering, producing waste and pollution.

Citing an example, he said there are sprawling of hotels with no proper standards in Phobjikha and Wangduephodrang whereby sewerage and waste water would flow into the wetlands disturbing the habitats of Black-Necked Cranes.

“It may be an irony that the hotels that attract tourists to the wetlands may make them disappear in 10 to 15 years,” said Ngawang Gyeltshen.

However, he said, it is not too late to set environment-friendly standards, safeguards and certification on waste water treatments and others.

Transferring business ideas into the projects and products to interpret their concept to various stakeholders, and sustainability among others are major the challenges to promote eco-tourism, said T. Sangay Wangchuk.

Further, he said tourism in the country focuses on international tourists and pays less attention to domestic tourism.

“High standard for domestic tourism with new products will facilitate an unique opening for international and regional tourists, “said T. Sangay Wangchuk adding that he has also asked for the certification of ecotourism and community-based tourism products.

In his resort, Dhumra, tourists gets an opportunity to be part of farming, cooking together and enjoy unique experiences, he added.

Ngawang Gyeltshen said wildlife watching would not be feasible in the country but there are options like high-end birding, Golden Mahseer watching, and yeti tourism among others.

He also said the new tourism policy of Bhutan calls for each Bhutanese to become a brand ambassador who would help in promoting ecotourism.

“Ecotourism would boost the conservation policy as well as accrue benefits from conservation (payment for environment services),“ said Ngawang Gyeltshen.

Both the panellists suggest that public-private-partnership (PPP) would be the best model for ecotourism in the country.

  1. Sangay Wangchuk said PPP model would benefit the general people as the income earned would be ploughed back at the grassroots level.

Similarly, Ngawang Gyeltshen said the PPP model could create a conducive environment for the government to provide fiscal incentives and lease of land, employment in the community and businesses and procurement opportunities to locals.

Preliminary estimates using international models and local rates, and higher range of investments and PPP characteristics reveal that PPP concessions in Bhutan’s Parks and natural areas can generate a capital investment of US$ 150mn and cumulative PPP fees of US$ 5.2mn per year.

If unleashed to its full potential, the impact on the local economy is estimated at 1,400 new jobs, with US$ 19.8mn in wages and benefits to staff annually, and local procurement value of US$ 3.3mn per year.

Thukten Zangpo from Thimphu