Yongphula airport - a boon or a bane for tourism in the east?

Infrastructure, key for balance in tourism

People of eastern Bhutan who are in the tourism industry say, infrastructure, especially an international airport will definitely attract tourists to the east

Reacting to Foreign Minister, Lyonpo Tandin Dorji’s statement on questions asked about balanced tourism, people in the east say that while Lyonpo is definitely right, they have also invested massively in order to attract tourists to the east. People further say that infrastructure, especially the Thimphu – Trashigang highway should be improved if balance in tourism benefits are to be reaped by the people. The other effective measure is an international airport in the east. 

“I watched the question answer session and Lyonpo Tandin is right to say that people should be equally responsible. This was also mentioned by His Majesty the King during the opening session of this National Assembly (NA) session. Unlike the past, we cannot depend completely on the government,” Karma Wangdi, from Mongar said. Nonetheless, Karma mentioned that people have also “done a lot.” “There are now star rated hotels in the east, farm houses, uninterrupted Internet access and other facilities. I could say that the east has almost everything required for a guest’s comfortable stay,” he said, underlining that the main issue is the lateral highway. “If I am a tourist, I also would not want to travel along such roads. Similarly, tour operators may not be selling the east because of the same reason, as tourists will complain, affecting their business,” he said, adding that Lyonpo Tandin’s words about an international airport would be the most vital aspect in balancing benefits of tourism. 

Sherub Wangdi, of Bhutan Friendship holidays also cite good infrastructure as the main issue. “When I say infrastructure, it means roads, airports and accommodation,” he underlined, adding that an international airport would “definitely” bring tourists to the east. According to him, the unpredictable situation in the border towns of India, such as strikes, prevent tourists from entering through Samdrup Jongkhar. “The lateral route is not only bad, but very long. Thus, an alternative is an airport at a very strategic region,” Sherub said. He further mentioned that the government could consider private chopper companies to boost tourism. Concerning hotels, Sherub said the government could promote Public Private Partnerships (PPP). Having been in the industry for long, Sherub said that the east has enough tourism products. “We just need to take the people there, which is difficult at this point,” he said.

A businessman who did not want to be named said that he invested whatever he had in the construction of a hotel. “It was not an ad-hoc decision. I consulted government officials on the potentials of tourism in the east and at their recommendations, constructed the hotel,” he said. “But it has been a big mistake and I am having tough time repaying my loans,” he said. He added that people are adding value just as in the west. “We have stone baths, herbal baths and others, too. However, with no tourists coming, I do not know how to clear my loans,” he said.

When asked what measures would be the best, he said infrastructure development is a must. “I mean an international or domestic airport that functions throughout the year,” he said. 

Meanwhile, an employee of the Wangchuk Hotel, Mongar said that in order to sustain the economy, tourists play a vital role.  “If the number of tourists visiting increases, it not only helps the hotel’s business but also helps local people promote their businesses,” he said.

He said that since September 31st, they have received a total of about 150 tourists, and that they are trying their best to serve them in the best possible ways.

He also said that the Trans-Bhutan Trail would become a major factor in attracting tourists to the eastern districts. “Not only that, there are also plans on opening international airports at Mongar and Gelephu, which will definitely help boost tourism in the east,” he added.

Nidup Lhamo from Thimphu