GAB’s founder and chairman calls for patience

A veteran of the tourism industry, Garab Dorji, says increasing SDF was not wrong and that tourists will visit Bhutan

As the one-year mark approaches since the implementation of Bhutan’s Tourism Levy Act 2022, which saw a significant increase in the sustainable development fee (SDF) for tourists, the country remains divided over its impact on the tourism industry. The Act, which led to raising SDF from USD 65 per night per person to USD 200 per person per night, for dollar paying tourists sparked fervent debates among the public and stakeholders within the tourism sector.

The policy shift has been criticized by many, mainly because of the decline in tourists visiting the country. Concerns have been raised that the high fee is the deterring factor, thereby harming the recovery of the sector.

However, Garab Dorji, a veteran of Bhutan’s Tourism Sector, who is also founder and chairman of the Guides Association of Bhutan (GAB) is resolute that benefits of SDF will be reaped soon and that the raise was required. He says that the whole world has been affected and that everyone is waiting patiently, which Bhutanese should also imbibe.  

“I am adamant that the benefits of the SDF will be reaped soon and that the increase was necessary. While the fee increase has not yet reached a level of widespread acceptance, it is important to recognize that the government’s move has squeezed profit margins for both local and international tour operators,” Garab said, adding that he had pointed out that despite the USD 200 Sustainable Development Fee (SDF), tour packages are still being marketed and sold in the range of USD 300 to USD 375.

“This is a concern, as it could lead to a compromise in the quality of services provided to tourists. With the increased tariff, tourists rightfully expect an enhancement in the quality of their experience. Tour operators must also provide good services,” he said.

Garab added that Bhutan’s tourism will reach a new level. “We will be known as a country where services are the best. Visitors coming to Bhutan are willing to pay a premium, indicating their desire for top-notch services,” he said.

GAB’s chairman also said he has emphasized the need for improved information dissemination regarding available services. “We need to portray a comprehensive image of Bhutan, not just focusing on its natural beauty and cultural heritage, but also showcasing its accommodations, dining options, tour guides, and more. Bhutanese people themselves are complaining that the SDF is high in the mainstream and social media. Why wouldn’t others not think so?”

As tourists invest $200 USD for the privilege of visiting Bhutan, Garab said it is “imperative that they enjoy the freedom to choose their means of transportation and have access to skilled guides who can cater to their diverse needs.” “Just look at hotels. Are they really worth hundreds or thousands of dollars compared to other hotels in the world or similar standards or from the same brands of hotels? It is all about how you market it,” he added. “Brand Bhutan is sold as a high-end destination, in line with our tourism policy of high value, low volume, and low impact. Let’s promote Bhutan as the tourism destination. It is just a matter of a few years when we will touch the sky. Let’s sell Bhutan as the destination and heaven on earth,” he concluded.

Garab further added that the entire world’s tourism industry has been affected. “Its not because of SDF but the Covid 19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine,” he said. According to the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) the pandemic brought the international travel industry to an almost total standstill. Lockdowns imposed around the world resulted in a 49% decline in activity and a loss of close to $4.5 trillion (£3.7 trillion) compared with 2019.

“Nepal tourism statistics for 2020 was 238,000,000.00, a 70.29% decline from 2019. According to the data published by Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), in 2022 about 600,000 tourists visited Nepal. Similarly, Thailand saw 39.8 million tourists in 2019. It feel to 11.15 million in 2022,” Garab said, adding that these are numbers, which speak. “It is not just Bhutan which has been affected. The whole world is and everyone is devising new ways to promote tourism with patience. We should also be patient, while doing what is necessary,” he said.

Tshering Pelden from Thimphu