Domestic tourism kicks off amid skepticism

Tour operators excited to welcome tourists during autumn season

Bhutan received only one tourist with the mandatory 21-day facility quarantine in 2021

With the government announcing its aim to open up tourism for the autumn season, many tour operators, who have suffered without any businesses for more than two years now, are jubilant and say they are happy to welcome tourists during the autumn season.

Raju Rai, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Heavenly Bhutan Travels, one of the travel agents in Thimphu, said, “If the situation is same to like what we are having right now, and if a new variant of concern related to the novel coronavirus does not surface, it will be absolutely possible for us to open up tourism anytime soon.”

While the tourism opening during the autumn season comes as a big news for the tour operators, another tour, who operates Bhutan Wonderland, the success of tourism hereafter would depend on many factors, like timely interventions and smart policy designs from the government.

“We need to have a good tourism recovery plan which can be on for a certain time, season or number of arrivals, and then closely monitor on neighboring countries or source market restrictions for travel, and prepare ourselves (hotels, restaurants, transport and back office team)” he said, adding that they also require the government’s support to help them tackle issues if anything goes wrong.

Although many tour operators are happy about the news of tourism opening up fully by autumn, they say they would also confront some challenges this time and cannot operate like they did earlier before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Raju Rai said, “We are concerned about a number of issues, including COVID protocols, restrictions on sightseeing/places to visit, international air connectivity, low service standards, fierce competition, and high global price, to name a few.”

Another tour operator, Kinley Wangchuk, Breathe Bhutan’s owner, said the new tourism policy has discontinued all discounts, even for children and babies.

“It may discourage a lot of potential tourists who want to visit Bhutan as a family,” he said.

He added that tourism is a very important sector for the economy of the country, and that it needs collective efforts to come up with creative ideas and be timely framed.

“The best practiced all-inclusive sustainable policy is the key to success. Additionally, concerned agencies and tourism stakeholders must stand united and work together for the future of tourism,” Kinley Wangchuk said.

During the Bhutan Dialogue Session on April 28 this year, the CEO of the Yangphel Adventure Travels, Karma Lotay said the news about the opening of tourism by September is quite good and comforting.

“However, for concrete plans, we might require to have something in black and white to prepare. Everyone is waiting for the official announcement now to prepare. Preparations are on the way, hotels are recruiting staff and a lot of renovations are being done so that we can host tourists during the fall season.”

 With the progress of the Covid situation, the next major phase for tourism, according to a board director of the Association of Bhutanese Tour operators (ABTO), Rabsel Dorji, is the removal of the quarantine stay for international travelers.

“Over the next few months, a clear phase-wise strategy should be communicated, marketing efforts must be ramped up, flight schedules should be increased, and all SOPs must be ready for implementation,” he said.

“As many tourism professionals have left the industry in the last two years to pursue careers in other areas and other countries, a major challenge will be to re-employ skilled tourism professionals in an industry that covered over 50,000 workers before the pandemic,” Rabsel Dorji said. 

Tshering Pelden from Thimphu