Though 1,612 tourists paying the revised SDF visited Bhutan this month, their impact has been negligible for most in the tourism industry
In between September 23 to October 23, 2022, 4,707 guests visited Bhutan of which 1,612 paid the revised sustainable development fee (SDF) of USD 200 per person per day. 2,326 were those that had initial bookings and thus paid the old SDF of USD 65. The others were regional tourists.
Known as the peak season, arrival of tourist to Bhutan has always been very high during this period. As people of the industry hope that the situation would improve, several businesses and individuals have been directly and indirectly affected. Meanwhile, stakeholders of the industry say there are still some issues that need to be addressed.
Executive Director, Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO), Sonam Dorji, said that Bhutan used to receive roughly 40,000 tourists throughout the fall season. “But the number is currently lower compared to before,” he said, adding that now that the fall season has almost ended, tour operators will have to wait for the next peak season for tourist. He also added that not many tourists are seen at the attraction sites like before.
“The busiest month for tourism is October owing to festivals, but we only saw about 5,000 visitors in that month. Once, things settle down, we anticipate seeing more visitors,” he added.
ABTO’s ED also said there are still a few issues that tourists have. “One of the issues is that tourists who arrive at the port of entry, whether it be in Paro or Phuentsholing, do not have guides with them on the first day, so they face difficulties,” he said.
“We say that we want to sell ourselves as a high-end destination, high value but when such things happen at the port of entry, it doesn’t look good, so that has to be rectified,” he added.
Sonam underlined that with all the changes taking place in the nation, it is still too early to make any predictions at this time. “Instead, let’s wait and see, and we hope that the tourism council will undertake positive improvements,” he said, adding that the tourism council should hold some sort of biannual or annual meeting to examine the contributions of all industry stakeholders and identify areas for development, if necessary, in order to provide better services to tourists.
There are also a couple of concerns that guides are not happy with. According to the Chairman of the Guide Association of Bhutan has more than 3000 guides. “But the TCB has only qualified 1,085 of them, 10 of which are in Phuentsholing,” he said. According to the TCB, guides should now be specialized. GAB’s chairman said that as of now, there should be some flexibility.
He added that another issue concerns rules and regulations, which are not very clear. “For example, several verbal restrictions, like the clothing code for visitors to some sites, are not provided clearly, which confuses both visitors and guides,” he said.
Meanwhile, beginning from entertainment centers to handicraft stores and others, the affects have been felt. Owner of a Karaoke, said that guides used to be regular customers. “They had disposable income mainly from tips they got. We used to earn a lot during this season, but this year not even one guide came to the Karoake this month,” she said.
Owner of a handicraft shop had the same to say. “I could sell goods amounting to only Nu. 30,000 in the past one month. Earlier, I could earn a gross income of about Nu 500,000 during this period,” he said.
Karma Tenzin, waiter of a hotel in the capital said he always looked forward to the “Tsechu Season.” “The hotel used to be packed and the tips I used to get would suffice to cover my expenses till the next peak season. I could thus save my salary. But, this year I just got Nu 450 in the last month,” he added.
Guides are another group affected. Kezang, a very senior guide said he hoped that his “financial position” would improve after Bhutan opened up. “I have called almost all tour operators that I know. But the response has been negative,” he said.
However, he said that it is not the end. “I firmly believe that guests will come to visit Bhutan. But, the services that we offer should be excellent,” he said. Kezang further added that earlier guides used to accompany tourists and provide them all information. “Today, tourists are on their own and we do not know what kind of people they would meet. We have our share of wild people and if something happens between tourists and these kinds of group, Bhutan’s image would be affected,” he said.
Tshering Pelden from Thimphu