Yongphula airport – a boon or a bane for tourism in the east?

While TCB is exploring the possibility of flights from India to Yongphula, in addition to chopper services from Paro, the feasibility of the airport is the region’s Achilles Heel.

If everything goes as planned, the Yongphula domestic airport could see flights from Bagdora in West Bengal and Guwahati in Assam, India, packed with tourists landing at the airport.

Additionally, regularly scheduled flights would land at the airport, breaking the silence at the airport. The results would be a giant leap in balanced tourism development.

However, with thick fogs covering the airport most of the time, leading to cancellation of flights, the question if the airport can be used to fly in tourists or not, remains.

The possibility of flights from the above areas to Yongphula is part of the 5-point appeal letter that the Eastern Hotel Association of Bhutan (EHAB) submitted to the Prime Minister earlier this month.

The point which the government did not consider was deferring the increase in sustainable development fund (SDF) for tourists visiting eastern Bhutan for three years.

Apart from the difficulty of changing provisions of an Act that has been endorsed, officials from the Prime Minister’s office said studies were done before the bill was put to parliament for deliberation and it was found that not a single extra tourist had gone despite the former SDF exemption for tourists to the East. The PMO sent the letter to the TCB for reviewing the other four points.

Speaking to the paper, Director General (DG) of TCB, Dorji Dhradhul shared that the other four points submitted by the EHAB could be considered. The flights to Yongphula are also one of the points and the TCB DG said it is a possibility and that TCB is already in the process of talking with airlines.

Towards this end, the TCB is studying the feasibility of introducing flights from Bagdora and Guwahati in North East India to Yongphula and also operating scheduled helicopter services to Yonphula airport.

Meanwhile, people are also skeptical if flights from India to Yongphula would work or not. Tandin Wangchuk, a private employee said he has seen and experienced scheduled Druk Air flights to Yongphula being cancelled constantly.

“The weather in Yongphula is unpredictable and unless the government comes up with measures that would enable flights to land at the airport despite the fog, tourists may not take the flights at all,” he said.

Nonetheless, he mentioned that scheduled chopper services would work. “Even if a chopper cannot land at the airport, it can land in other areas. Chopper services can be extended to other districts in the East, too,” he added.

A businessman from Trashigang said that if the government and TCB are really studying the feasibilities of flights to Yongphula, it is an indication that concerned agencies are finally really thinking of regional balance in tourism.

“The east-west highway is terrible. Tourists will not take the route from Phuentsholing to Samdrup Jongkhar. So flights are the only option for people in eastern Bhutan to get a taste of the tourism cake, and there could be something that the government could do,” he said, adding that he has heard about an instrument landing system, which facilitates flights to land even if the airport is covered by fog.

However, Karma Wangchuk, Director General (DG), Department of Air Transport and Authority, said the Average True Range (ATR) used in domestic flights currently by Druk air is 642-600, and that it is very hard for the plane to land in Yonphula due to heavy and thick fog.

On the possibility of the instrument landing system, he said that it is not possible primarily because of the fog. “Even with the installation of an instrument landing system, it will not be much help because the fog at Yonphula Airport is very thick, about 10 to 20 meters thick,” he said.

He also stated that even if airlines use the instrument landing system, it will not be possible for flights to land because Yonphula airport is unidirectional, unlike Paro airport.

In Yonphula, flights can only land and take off from one direction. “As a result, studies are being conducted to expand Bumthang domestic airport,” he said.

TCB’s Tourism Monitor 2019, shows that from the total Minimum Daily Package Rate paying tourists who visited Bhutan, only 1.22% visited Lhuntse, while 4.24% visited Trashigang. Tashiyangtse got only 1.65% of the tourists and Pemagatshel, 0.15%.

Meanwhile, as September 23 approaches, stakeholders of the tourism sector are getting prepared, with no one definite but concerned about the number of tourists that would visit Bhutan paying the SDF of USD 200 per day.

However, the concerns differ. While those in western Bhutan are concerned mainly about the number of tourists that would visit Bhutan, those in the east are worried if they will have even one tourist visiting the region.

Tshering Pelden from Thimphu