MoICE approval based on rules and criteria set, says Minister

Minister says that there are other aspects apart from names and Passport details to check the booking

Responding to issues within the tourism industry that the government approved three tour operators, namely Amen Bhutan Tours, Bhutan Raewa Travels and Happiness Kingdom Travels, to bring in more than 3,000 tourists at the old Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) rate of USD 65, Lyonpo Karma Dorji, Ministry of Industry, Commerce, and Employment (MOICE), said everything was done in accordance with rules set and criteria set by the Department of Tourism (DoT). 

“It is not that the government picked these three companies and approved them. They came to the government with all the reports and evidence of booking prior to 20th June 2022. Only then did we approve their request,” Lyonpo said, adding that the most important aspect was that they had submitted their applications to the Department of Tourism (DoT) before the submission deadline of July 22, 2022.

Lyonpo also mentioned that the reason for the approval of the three tour operators was due to the criteria set by the DoT, especially on evidences of bookings.

After endorsement of the Tourism Levy Act 2022, the parliament had set 20th, June 2022 as deadline for the last day of booking at the old SDF rate of USD 65. The DoT set a deadline of 22nd, July 2022, for the submission of all applications and received approximately 20,000 tourist bookings at the old SDF rate.

 Any bookings made before the deadline of 20th; June 2022 were permitted to be charged the old rate of USD 65. According to Lyonpo, the DoT established certain conditions to filter the applications, with the provision of name and passport details for each tourist being the number one criterion for approving tourists on the old rate.

Based on the aforementioned criteria DoT filtered and approved 14,429 tourists who provided their names and passport details. However, around 6,000 other bookings were not approved because the tourists did not fulfill the criteria of providing the necessary names and passport details.

On the same issue, Director General of DoT, Dorji Dhradhuel, stated that they were instructed to approve only those tourists who had everything ready, such as scheduled flights and hotel bookings. Essentially, they were only approving tourists who had everything in place, but couldn’t come to Bhutan due to the COVID-19 lockdown and border closures.

“While verifying the applications of Amen, Happiness Kingdom, and Raewa, we found that important details, such as the names and passport details of the tourists, were missing along with some other details, which is why the applications were rejected,” he said. However, Lyonpo mentioned that the evidence of booking cannot be solely determined by the name and passport details of the tourist.

He added that the DoT’s criteria of names and passport details did not fulfill the overall intention of what was decided in the parliament.

 “What the government has directed is to provide evidence of booking, and it can vary, not just by name and details. Proof of booking can also be financial statements of the bookings and other similar documents,” Lyonpo said.

“At that time, we also received applications from three companies – Amen Tours, Raewa, and Happiness Kingdom. However, during that time, the DoT did not approve their applications as these three companies were unable to provide the required criteria of name and passport details of the tourists,” he added.

According to Lyonpo, tour operators usually have an overseas travel agent who does bulk bookings. For instance, in 2019, Happiness Kingdom booked 12 chartered flights and the tourists had already paid. However, they did not provide the names and passport details of the tourists. In earlier years, tour operators targeted a specific number of tourists and chartered a flight for them. Similarly, Raewa and Amen also did the same thing.

“After being rejected by the DoT, the three companies approached the government claiming that everything had been done, including the chartered flights being booked and paid for. They stated that it was unfair that their applications were not approved despite evidence of booking,” added Lyonpo.

Around 1,800 tourist (12 chartered flight) of Happiness Kingdom, about 300 tourists of Raewa tours and 1,500 tourists of Amen tours were approved by the government on October and November of 2022.

On allegations of undercutting, Lyonpo said: “We have provided approved tours with the condition that they should not sell at a rate lower than USD 200 or take away other tour operators’ guests for new tourists who have bookings after 20th June 2022 If there is an official complaint, then we will cancel the approved list. “

Tshering Pelden from Thimphu