One of the most discussed, debated and criticized topics in recent times has been the increase in the sustainable development fee (SDF) for dollar-paying tourists to USD 200 per day. While the revision of SDF to USD 100 has come as a silver lining, it is temporal. What will happen after December 31, 2023? While there are no answers to this, there is a consensus that promoting tourism is not just the responsibility of the Department of Tourism (DoT) and stakeholders of the tourism industry, but a duty of all Bhutanese.
“There are many questions asked. But one of the main issues that people need to understand is that tourism like any product of a country is everyone’s business,” Garab Dorji, Chairman and Founder of the Guide Association of Bhutan (GAB) says. According to Garab, marketing is important and it is the responsibility of all agencies and Bhutanese to do so when opportunities are availed. “We need to get away from the traditional concept that tourism is just the responsibility of the Department of Tourism (DoT) and related stakeholders like GAB,” he said.
GAB’s chairman said that Bhutanese missions and embassies around the world can play very important roles. “From the USA to Brussels and Australia, we have embassies and consulates. Can they not engage in selling Bhutan? Perhaps, they are doing it in coordination with the DoT, but I have neither heard nor read any tourism promotional activities undertaken by the embassies, apart from what was done when the new brand was launched,” he said.
Tandin Wangchuk, a young entrepreneur said that the importance of tourism is now felt by everybody. “We are talking about declining foreign reserves, unemployment, Australian migration, and other social and economic issues. Tourism is a direct and indirect solution to most of these issues.” Speaking about the transformation, Tandin said that His Majesty specifically mentioned “coordination,” and the need to work beyond what one’s terms of reference (ToR) say. “Agencies pursue isolated sectoral objectives while administrative processes burden efficient service delivery. Communication and co-ordination have been further sidelined in the quest for autonomy by different agencies,” His Majesty’s Kasho to the civil servants says. According to Tandin, he does not see improvements. “We have high officials, including ministers going to other countries for seminars, conferences etc. Can they not plan and devote some time to talk with tourism stakeholders of those countries? Is this the responsibility of officials and minister of the ministry of industry and commerce only,” he questioned.
Tandin further added that Bhutanese abroad can also be used as “agents.” “There are about 10,000 Bhutanese in the Middle East and thousands in Australia. The government can appoint some as tourism promoters and pay them a decent fee.” Additionally, Tandin said that students on government scholarships abroad can sell Bhutan. “They can organize a talk on Bhutan, focusing on our culture and other aspects and promote Bhutan.”
Tandin also took a dig at the Bhutanese media. “You write what is true; but I believe that national interests are important, too. I hardly see the Bhutanese media promoting Bhutan in print or in broadcast. Is the Bhutanese media trying to tell the world that an article on Bhutan is not worth just as visiting Bhutan is,” he questioned. In Tandin’s words, it is also a lack of coordination, between stakeholders of the industry and the media.
Dorji, a former corporate employee said Bhutan is yet to see and understand the importance of tourism. “I think most people think about direct benefits, such as the SDF, benefits to hoteliers, guides and others. But, there is more than that.”
“Imagine if Marcos Galperi (Argentine billionaire) or his family members or Sheikh Sulaiman bin Abdul Aziz Al Rajhi (Saudi Billionaire) comes to Bhutan and finds that there are several opportunities to invest,” Dorji said.
However, Dorji, who has also worked in the hospitality industry says “there is a lot to be done.” “The DoT is currently focusing on marketing. Familiarization tours are conducted; several renowned writers have begun to write about Bhutan. But we need to get the small yet important things right.” According to Dorji, projecting Bhutan as a high-value destination is embarrassing when there are no standard toilets along the highways. “Infrastructure is critical. Tourists will not bother much about hotels, because they have stayed in better ones. They will want good roads and viewpoints where they can rest and take a picture. The road to Gasa needs to be improved as it looks dangerous in some areas,” he said, adding “these are just few areas needing priority.”
A resident of Thimphu who did not want to be named said that messages are being shown right from the top. “Look at the Kaja Throms. These serve multiple purposes, and one is definitely tourism. But we have people and even agencies mandated to manage waste and they never do it with sincerity. The attitude of the people are no better. ”
He further added that the Global Tourism Economy Forum (GTEF) 2023 started from the 20th of September 2023 in Macao SAR, China and would go on till the 23rd of the month. It is a platform designed to promote the sustainable development of the global tourism sector, and has become a leading international platform over the past decade, bringing together policy makers, academics, corporate leaders, and entrepreneurs from around the world to explore opportunities and challenges in the global tourism economy. “I will not be surprised to know that there are no representatives from Bhutan at the Forum,” he said.
There is still time. The United Nations World Tourism Organization’s(UNWTO) Barometer in May 2023’s survey from a panel of experts saw 70% of experts expecting better performance in May-August 2023. Though there are skeptics of the UNWTO, tourism worldwide has seen a dip. Most experts said that international tourism will not return to 2019 levels until 2024 or later. It was reported that in response to the challenging economic environment, tourists are expected to increasingly seek value for money and travel closer to home this year, he said. “Everyone should give their best till 2024.”
Ugyen Tenzin from Thimphu