The contrast between the Thimphu Dromche of September 20, 2023, and those of the pre-pandemic era was glaring. Tourists were virtually nonexistent. This serves as a stark reminder that, while a handful of tourists have embarked on their journeys to the “Last Shangrila,” their numbers fall far short of what is needed to revitalize both the hospitality industry and the economy.
Bhutan is not alone in grappling with this challenge; the global tourism industry has faced a downturn. However, our predicament is particularly acute due to our longstanding reliance on tourism, which has served as a major source of employment and foreign revenue. International tourism experts have cautioned that it will take time for the industry to regain its 2019 levels, dispelling any illusions of rapid wealth accumulation.
As is often the case, fingers were pointed long ago, with the increase in the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) being cited as the primary culprit. In response, the government has made adjustments, temporarily reducing the SDF to USD 100 until December 31, 2023. Speculation abounds that a new government may further reduce the SDF, but we must ask ourselves if this is the sole cause of our tourism woes.
Prominent stakeholders within the industry and others have voiced their opinions, contending that attracting tourists is not solely the responsibility of the Department of Tourism (DoT). As an industry with immense potential to contribute to the nation’s economy, every Bhutanese citizen should share the duty of promoting Bhutan. Questions are raised about whether our embassies and missions abroad are actively considering their roles in promoting our country. The need for both leaders and citizens to assume multifaceted roles is emphasized.
Initiatives like the Kaja Throms are cited as examples that would benefit both our people and the tourism industry. Her Majesty’s introduction of the Zero Waste Hour is aimed at enhancing Bhutan’s appeal to tourists. Their Majesties lead by example; it is time for us to reflect on our own efforts.
Are we failing because various agencies are still pursuing isolated sectoral objectives? Is the quest for autonomy sidelining communication and coordination? Are we truly evolving, as His Majesty has suggested? Are we capitalizing on the unique aspects of our country’s history, geography, culture, tradition, and, most importantly, its people? Are we adequately preparing for the future?
Perhaps there is collaboration among different agencies, and maybe our embassies and missions in the West are closely aligned with the tourism industry. However, these efforts do not seem to be reflected on the preferred social media platforms of our leaders and institutions. There has been no news of any Bhutanese delegation or individual participating in the three-day 10th edition of the Global Tourism Economy Forum, which commenced on September 20th in Macau.
The DoT is certainly putting forth its best efforts, with a strong focus on promoting Bhutan. Nevertheless, it is crucial to evaluate the effectiveness of these measures. While winning awards is commendable, their true value lies in their ability to attract visitors.
We must remember that there can be no Bhutan without Bhutanese. Our ancestors’ strengths was their ability to unite and collaborate when national interests were at stake. Today, our economy is a national interest, and tourism remains one of its cornerstones. We cannot navigate this path in isolation; everyone can play a pivotal role in revitalizing our tourism industry and, in turn, our nation’s economic well-being