NA discusses a Perennial Issue – Balance in Tourism 

NA discusses a Perennial Issue – Balance in Tourism 

The foreign minister outlined numerous plans to develop tourism industry in the east

Balanced tourism was brought out for discussion once again, as Member of the National Assembly, Drungtsho (Dr) Karma Wangchuk, from Chhumig Ura constituency, Bumthang asked about measures taken by the government for balanced regional development. The question was asked during the question and answer session of the National Assembly on November 22, 2022.

Plans for an international airport in Gelephu or Mongar, combining helicopter services with Druk Air and projects for tourism were cited as measures that would be undertaken to promote balance in tourist visits.

“We are also looking at plans to have planes land straight from India at Yonphula or Gelephu domestic airports so that tourists traveling to the east do not have to take the lengthier route to Paro and then to the east,” Lyonpo Dr. Tandi Dorji, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFa) said, adding that all these are the plans for the development of tourism in the east.

Other interventions mentioned were the government initiated Sustainable Hospitality Industries inclusive of nature’s Entrepreneur (SHINE) in eight Eastern regions with the aim of promoting tourism in the region of with a budget of 2.3 Million Euros for a period of five years

The other was the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) funding of 4.8 million for wildlife observation, such as bird watching in the eastern region.

 “We have already begun the process of reopening the borders; formerly, tourists could only enter through Paro or Phuntsholing, but we have opened more entrance points in Samdrup Jonkhar, Gelephu, and Samtse,” the minister said.

According to the minister, discussions with the Indian government to open more entry points for tourists in areas like Pangbang in Zhemgang, Lhamoi Zingkha in Dagana, and Nganglam in Pemagatshel are being held. 

Touching on responsibility, Lyonpo mentioned that while the government is trying to fully promote and develop tourism in the east, “it is also the responsibility of the residents of the eastern area to make it a more appealing tourist destination.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Tandi also underlined that till now most of the tourists have just visited the western part of Bhutan. “But we cannot blame it on the increased Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) because even prior to revision of the tourism policy, there were not many tourists going there,” he said.

He also stated that during the second government’s tenure, tourists were provided free access to visit the eastern region, but just 1-2% of tourists availed the subsidy. Lyonpo, on the other hand, suggested that projects such as hot stone baths may be prioritized for the eastern region in order to attract tourists.

Meanwhile, Drungtsho Karma Wangchuk inquired about the revenue generated by tourism and where it was spent.

Lyonpo Tandi Dorji stated that they had submitted all revenue to the Ministry of Finance, which allotted the budget for various government programs and objectives. He also highlighted that people should not believe that, because the majority of tourists visit Bhutan’s western area, the government will spend all tourism earnings in that region. Regardless of whether it is in the west or east, the entire revenue generated by tourism will be used for the benefit of all people.

If experiences from Phuentsholing are to be taken, tourism in the east will face issues like the Nu 1200 SDF for Indian tourists is currently doing in Phuentsholing, where hotels remain empty as all stay in Jaigoan to avoid paying the Nu 1200 SDF. The same can happen along the border towns.

Tour operators say that if there is genuineness for balanced tourism, subsidies can be given for visits to the East. “A lower SDF, increased subsidized chopper services could be measures,” Karma, a tour operator said.

The East is in many ways an area that has not been optimally harnessed for tourism, despite availability of diverse tourism products. The call for balanced tourism benefits and infrastructure development promises a vibrant tourism policy for the East. But the issue right now is if guests would firstly come to Bhutan paying the new SDF and then travel to the East. 

According to the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s (TCB) Tourism Monitor 2019, only 8,850 dollar paying tourists visited the six eastern regions in 2019. The total number of tourists that visited Bhutan that year was 229,663. From the eastern districts, 2648 visited Trashigang, the highest. Pemagatshel saw only 96 tourists and Lhuntse 761. Mongar received 2593 tourists, Trashiyangtse 1,031 and  Samdrup Jongkhar 1,721.

Tshering Pelden from Thimphu