The tricky act called balancing

There are times when one issue is deliberated every time. This is a signal that those deliberating have failed to solve the issue altogether because of the complexity of the matter and other factors. Unemployment is one such subject, discussed in almost all meetings, workshops and conventions related to the economy. The other, for a very long time has been equity in tourism or ensuring that guests coming to Bhutan are distributed equally. It is hard to remember a session of the National Assembly, where this subject was not discussed. 

The foreign minister, Dr. Tandin Dorji was asked the same question and he spoke at length about interventions, including the feasibility of introducing flights from India directly to Yonphula or Gelephu domestic airports; combining helicopter services with Druk Air and other projects. He also stated that during the second government’s tenure tourists were provided free access to visit the eastern region, but that just 1-2% of tourists availed the subsidy. The minister further mentioned that it is also the responsibility of the residents of the eastern regions to make the area a more appealing tourist destination.

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.   

There are several factors at play here; foremost being the interests of tourists. If they do not want to go to eastern Bhutan, the presence of Hidden Lands (Baeyul); trees that emit smoke during the Traditional Day of Offerings and even the sight of the Abominable Yeti cannot persuade them. Opening of more entrance points also may not make a difference. And flights from India directly to Yonphula is a far-fetched solution, unless the airport is revamped.

The people of the east have also taken their responsibilities seriously. Several hotels of tourist standard were constructed. Local governments ensured that infrastructure (roads) to tourist destinations were prioritized. Tourism shops were opened. Where then is the gap?

Few experts say marketing is very important and that Bhutan has not been able to market eastern Bhutan. Circuit tourists do not even have eastern Bhutan in their plans. But there is no denying that eastern Bhutan is an appealing tourist destination.

The government has also been citing that even subsidies do not work. However, what did not work was in the past when the sustainable development fee (SDF) was just USD 65. Today it is USD 200. Thus, the probability of a slight subsidy making a difference cannot be ruled out.

Further, the tourism industry has also undergone a massive transformation exercise, with experts from the West involved. Taking tourism to the east would definitely have been one of the issues discussed. There would have been recommendations, too. It will be interesting to see the outcome of the exercises, especially related to ways that would take tourism beyond Thrimshingla.