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Tourism Industry asks for policy on regional tourists
  • Kinga Dema

Given the increasing arrivals, the industry feel there is a need to have a policy in place

Tourism: The drastic increase in the arrival of regional tourists over the years has pushed tourism stakeholders to call for a policy to govern regional tourists.

Tourism stakeholders raised the issue with the government recently expressing the need for a proper strategy on management and maximising benefits of regional tourists.

Records with the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) show that as of May this year, 45,704 regional tourists visited the country. During the same period last year, 24,059 regional tourists visited the country. From 5,513 regional tourist arrivals in January this year, May alone recorded 18,342 visitors.

Visitors from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives are referred as regional tourists.

Unlike international tourists, regional tourists are exempt from paying the minimum daily tariff of USD 250 and 200 for the peak and lean seasons. They also do not require visas to enter the country.

Records indicate a steady increase in regional tourists over the years. From 50,722 regional tourist arrivals in 2012, it increased to 63,426 and 65,399 in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

Until a couple of years ago, regional tourists were not part of the tourism statistics. However, now that their numbers are used as a yardstick for achieving targets, tour operators said there should be certain regulations in place not just to monitor but also to effectively manage and optimise tourism benefits.

As most regional tourists enter the country unguided and drive their own vehicles without any restriction, tourism stakeholders feel that this could have an impact on the dollar-paying tourists.

Regional tourists process their entry and route permits from the immigration department. The trend is such that a majority of them enter from the border town of Phuentsholing via road. Hoteliers said most prefer to cook on their own and about three to five tourists share a room. Although most hotels don’t allow such arrangements, some do.

All international tourists have to be put up in a three-star category hotel and above while this requirement is not applicable for regional tourists.

Tour operators said that a regulation is a must for regional tourists to offer a meaningful trip. Tour operators have also raised the issue with the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO).

TCB attributes the increase in regional tourists to continued ​awareness on Bhutan as a destination through TCB’s participation in numerous tourism events. However, officials didn’t comment on whether its time for the country to have a tourism policy for regional tourists as well.

ABTO’s executive director Sonam Dorje said that the country has seen more increase in regional tourists than the dollar-paying tourists, especially in the last five years. “The drastic increase in the last two months is mainly owing to diversion of regional tourists whose trips to Nepal got cancelled following the earthquake.”

“As a small country with limited carrying capacity, we do need certain regulations in place even for non-tariff paying tourists,” he said. “A policy would not only help us in sustainably managing our resources but also help visitors have memorable experiences.”

Tour operators said if the issue is not addressed soon, the country could lose high-end tourists who prefer Bhutan as a niche destination.

“Bhutan is a cheap destination for regional tourists as they pay the same air fare as Bhutanese and entrance fees at monuments are also cheaper for them,” a tour operator said. “Some hotels also offer them much cheaper price as hotels get cash payment.”

Another tour operator who also caters to regional tourists said that as a small country, there should not be two different tourism policies. “We might have enough hotels now but we’ve only have few tourist sites and it’s getting over crowded,” he said. “This will discourage dollar-paying tourists who solely visit Bhutan as an exclusive destination.”

If regional tourists are regulated well, tour operators and guides said it would help solve the existing seasonality issue as most regional tourists travel to Bhutan to escape the heat during the summer months. Some suggested that a SAARC rate of just charging royalty should be in place.

Guides Association of Bhutan’s chairman Garab Dorji said that with the increasing regional tourists, the tourist hotspots become crowded during peak seasons. “Unregulated regional tourists are against our policy of high value, low volume,” he said, adding that regional tourists are difficult to manage and have disciplinary issues.

Garab Dorji also pointed out the need to assess the contribution of regional tourists to the economy should the trend continue.