Security versus Survival

Security versus Survival

In a recent press conference, home minister DashoSherubGyeltshen expressed his reservation over opening new entry points for regional tourists, which was endorsed earlier this year, with an overwhelming majority voting in favor of the same

Business community members of the southern border towns are unsettled by the ambiguous statement of the home minister regarding the new entry points from Nganglam, Panbang, Gelephu and Samtse for regional tourists, which he said “may or may not” come through, citing national security. 

This decision from the ministry has come right when businesses in the border town of SamdrupJongkhar slumped back, after a month-long hype caused by the Royal Flower Exhibition, where the entire community came together to beautify their town with exotic flowers.

“We were hopeful the entry point would open right after the exhibition, but then it was blocked all of a sudden by the ministry. Why are we being deliberately ignored and shunned by the center?” asked one hotelier, looking a little exasperated, “Not to mention the dry spell we all have been experiencing for the last two years.”

According to her friend Karma Choki, Gyalpoizhing-Nganglam bypass had a catastrophic impact on the service sector in SamdrupJongkhar, particularly the hotels with its high overhead costs, which would be the first to go out of business if the current situation persists.

“We want the ministry to honor the decision of the national assembly,” she said, seemingly worried about making this month’s rent for the hotel, which she recently acquired, and invested a fortune on renovation. 

Meanwhile, an official from the Hotel and Restaurant Association of SamdrupJongkhar (HRAB-SJ) explained how the matter ended up in the National Assembly in the first place?

“Our association has been pursuing this case for over a year now during which we wrote to every relevant public official, including the Prime Minister and the Member of the Parliament from this constituency, to open the entry point at the earliest,” he said.

With the market severely affected by the new highway, the business community members have conducted several rounds of meetings with the regional heads of the government, submitted a detailed report on the same to the Prime Minister’s Office, and have personally conveyed the same to the members of the parliament.

“How long can we go on this way?” asked a businessman , who is on the verge of giving up, just like his next door neighbor, who closed his shop a couple months ago and moved out.   

MP from Dewathang-Gomdar constituency Ugyen Dorji, who first raised the issue of new ‘entry points’ in the National Assembly, where almost all the members voted in favor of allowing the same, is utterly dismayed by the ministry’s move to defer the same. 

“The ministry does not have the authority to veto the decision or the resolution of the country’s highest legislative body,” he said.

“If a ministry refuses to abide by the resolution of any house of parliament, I think it would constitute breach of the constitution and tantamount to contempt of parliament, which we must look into seriously,” he said. 

 The Regional Secretary of Bhutan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (BCCI), UgyenChophel, explained that it is not just one particular trade that has been affected but businesses across are not faring well.

“I have been receiving a lot of people from the business community who are anxious about the ministry’s decision.” he said, adding regional tourism can be facilitated without undermining the national security.

Likewise, the chairman of Taxi Association of SamdrupJongkhar, Wangphu, insisted on allowing the regional tourists entry from SamdrupJongkhar, like before, through special permit, where individual cabbie took total risk.    

“Our income has been severely affected, and the only way out is through regional tourism,” he said. 

   It’s not just SamdrupJongkhar, shopkeepers Business Bhutan talked to across the southern border towns, say their business is totally down.

Dorji Wangdi, an entrepreneur from GelephuThromde, used the expression “super dry” to describe the state of the town.   

“How can we grow as a town if progress is derailed in the name of national security,” he said, adding land prices were beginning to rise and people were investing, “After they saw the prospect regional tourism would bring. But to everyone’s surprise the decision of the National Assembly was seemingly overturned by the home ministry. “

The Chairman of the Hotel Association of Gelephu, UgyenRabten, besides sharing the “pathetic” state of hotels and restaurants in the town, talked about the unruly behavior of some of the officials at the check post, which deters Indian visitors from entering Gelephu.  

“Currently, I am diverting all the regional tourists from Gelephu to Phuentsholing,” he said, since the government does not allow regional tourist entry beyond the seven-kilometer radius.

Similarly, Kelzang, the Regional Secretary of Gelephu BCCI, also agree that tourism promotion should be earnestly pursued.  

He said if regional tourists are regulated and screened properly, the security concerns can be put to rest.

“We have been going to the neighboring Indian cities of Kokrajar and Guwahati to promote Gelephu town,” he said, adding the new entry points would dramatically transform the economic landscape of the entire region.     

The owner of Eco-Lodge in Panbang is uncertain about the future of his establishment and is deeply cautious about making any further investment. Panbang and the places further north, he said, have a lot of potential for eco-tourism due to its proximity to the Manas National Park.

“All the scenic places are located across the bridge, which is restricted for regional tourists,” he said, adding that they should focus on tapping high-end tourists, if the entry restriction is lifted.         

Meanwhile, MP Ugyen Dorji lamented how the Dewathang-Nganglam highway construction was stopped.        

“I see limited scope for SamdrupJongkhar to rise to its former glory, as the commercial hub of Eastern Bhutan, other than the promotion of regional tourism,” he said.

Talking to Business Bhutan, home minister DashoSherubGyetshen said the National Assembly had endorsed new entry points for regional tourists from the southern border towns and in principle he does agree, but added that they at the same time also have to measure the pros and cons of allowing tourists from these borders.

“We have to strengthen the security and work out on how to allow all tourists in the country. As of now my stand as a minister is that I cannot say either the tourists will be allowed to come or will not be allowed,” he said.

The minister added that security is his concern and that it should be a concern for each and every Bhutanese people.

“For the benefit of having tourists in the country, we cannot compromise with the security of the country. We have to plan well on the issue. We are still working on the issue of security,” the minster added.

Additional reporting by ChenchoDema

Karma Tenzin from S/Jongkhar