Exploring domestic tourism market amid Covid-19

With the coronavirus pandemic causing the closure of national borders and the suspension of international travel, the government is exploring ways to boost domestic tourism.

Although domestic tourism has not picked up much so far, its importance and potential has been recognized for quite some time now. In fact, domestic tourism is an important component of the ongoing tourism flagship program and it is also featured in the draft tourism policy that is waiting to be approved within this month. 

The Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) in their effort to promote and encourage domestic tourism during the pandemic have sought expression of interest to promote domestic tourism from industry partners and about 80 have already registered.

In an interview with Business Bhutan, Dorji Dhradhul, Director General of TCB said that a workshop will be conducted soon to discuss and identify potential tourism products and places and to understand the support required by private partners. “With this we hope that we can increase the scale of domestic tourism and help kick-start tourism industry,” he said.

“Though domestic tourism alone may not be able to kick-start the whole tourism economy in full strength, it should be able to help keep alive some tourism businesses. But it is quite certain that its contribution to the nation’s economy will gradually increase over time,” said the DG.

DG also elaborated that they see an opportunity in popularizing domestic tourism products such as visit the 20 Dzongkhags, pilgrimage, meditation, nature (trekking and camping), rafting, culture (festivals), meetings/workshops/conferences, and others.

For example, a new product called “Druk Neykhor” or “Bhutan Pilgrimage” is being developed. Druk Neykhor intends to cover 108 must-visit sacred sites/monuments in the 20 Dzongkhags, wherein a participating tourist/pilgrim will own a “stamp book” designed in a traditional “scripture” style and get it stamped with the seal of that site/monument as a reward (proof) of the visit. It will be the aim of the tourist or pilgrim to visit all these 108 sites/monuments over a period of time. “We hope to launch this product with 16 sites/monuments in Thimphu Dzongkhag,” added the DG.

As an important input towards this objective of promoting and developing domestic tourism, TCB have just finalized and published a report (www.tourism.gov.bt) on the first-ever nationwide survey on Domestic and Outbound Tourism conducted in 2019.

The study reports that a total of 765,000 domestic overnight trips were undertaken with an average four trips in 2019. Majority of the overnight trips have taken place for ‘visiting friends & relatives’ (31.53%), followed by ‘health and medical care’ with 17.95%, ‘holiday leisure’ with 12.9%, and ‘religion / pilgrim’ with 12.47%, amongst others.

Meanwhile, TCB’s role is to provide all necessary support in terms of policy, procedures, regulations, standards and services, expertise, and coordination among different stakeholders; funding and marketing and promotion of different domestic tourism products.

TCB does not have a system to collect information formally in the national accounting but as part of the Domestic and Outbound Survey, TCB estimated a total of Nu.7bn for domestic tourism expenditure in 2019 of which Nu. 5.9bn was for overnight expenditure and Nu. 1.1bn for excursion expenditure.  

Although domestic tourism will undoubtedly offer some relief to emerging economies that have suffered under the virus lockdown, it is unlikely to fully compensate for the losses incurred from international travel restrictions.

Meanwhile a tour operator, Karma Lhamo who recently ventured into domestic tourism said domestic tourism especially Neykor and hiking to the beautiful lakes have picked up these days. Every day there are five to seven groups and on weekends, “it is even more at Tango University of Buddhist Studies.”

Karma Lhamo said Bhutan has many sacred sites to be visited. “The cultural diversity within the country and rich flora and fauna in different districts will always offer scope for domestic tourism. Domestic tourism if taken professionally will help boost our economy. We should remember, everywhere in the world, eventually it’s domestic tourism that sustains the tourism industry, so should it be in Bhutan,” she added.

She also shared that she works in a travel agent which does both inbound and out bound tours, especially neykor programs but her office is yet to start domestic tours. “We want to make it professional and right now we are working on the Neykor packages to eastern Bhutan. Anyone could organize it but in order to sustain, professionalism is must. We will come up with the best packages to suit our diverse clients. I have been doing most neykors and hikings amid the pandemic with my friends,” she said.

Meanwhile she also said that TCB should help to make domestic tourism professional. “Looking at the current trends, any one could organize this kind of tours and there is no need of a travel license. Like inbound tours, TCB should make it compulsory for the organizers to have at least the travel license and transparency and accountability should be  put in place,” she added.

pic courtesy: facebook

Chencho Dema from Thimphu