Bhutanese Tourism Industry Under Attack
The dream destroyers are at it yet again! The clamor for demolishing the visionary tourism policy of high-value, low-volume, introduced by the Fourth Druk Gyalpo in 1974, is gaining steam from certain sections of the society and the Bhutanese polity. Sadly it is happening during a time when we celebrated the monarch's 60th Birth Anniversary that concluded less than two weeks back. I am unable to understand the logic behind those who are baying for the burial of a policy that has been admired and adulated by world leaders and thinkers. There is something terribly wrong with the people who seek to alter a policy that has stood us in good stead for the past four decades. These people ignore the fact that the unremitting success we have seen in our vital tourism industry hinged on one simple and yet profound guiding principal - our much-admired policy of high-value, low-volume tourism. I have heard visitors to Bhutan praise the wisdom behind the policy. Infact the tourists favor even higher daily tariff in the hope that Bhutan can continue to support and maintain the pristine environment and cultural purity that is the hallmark of Bhutan's enduring allure as a tourism destination. Bhutan introduced tourism in 1974 - soon after the coronation of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Some of the large hotels (by Bhutan's standards) such as Hotel Olathang, Hotel Motithang and Hotel Kharbandi were constructed to accommodate the visiting dignitaries to the coronation ceremony. In my view the introduction of tourism was necessitated to make use of these facilities that would otherwise remain unused. While introducing tourism, His Majesty the IVth Druk Gyalpo was mindful of the negative impacts of uncontrolled and unregulated tourism. Thus, he was categorical that the guiding principals that should define and guide the development of our tourism industry would be: high-value, lowvolume, (this was later rephrased to read: high-value, low-impact). Since then Bhutan has been unwavering and single minded in the pursuit of this policy resulting in an industry that now qualifies as the most important and vibrant. In 1974 when the country was opened up for tourism, tourist arrivals were a mere 287. It has now grown to over 133,000 arrivals in 2014. From a single tour operator in 1974, there are currently over a thousand licenced tour companies engaged in tourism businesses. Tourism accounts for the highest amount of untied foreign exchange inflow - estimated at about US$73 million annually, out of which close to US$21.00 million is net Royalty that goes into the national exchequer. It is the country's biggest employer, providing employment and livelihood to every segment of Bhutanese society - irrespective of religion, gender, social standing, level of skills, educated and uneducated, the aged and the young. As of now, tourism industry is the only industry in the country that DOES NOT INDULGE IN FRONTING. Unlike in other sectors where even a shanty stationary shop is financed and owned by shadowy outsiders, every aspect of the tourism business is owned and managed by Bhutanese. Unlike in the perilous hydro-power industry where secondhand trucks, buses, cement, rods, management and even vegetables are brought in from outside, Bhutanese tourism industry relies solely on local talent and resources available within the country. But now it is under attack. This is insanity at its worst. There can be nothing noble or patriotic about those people who are determined to lead asunder the only industry that is the bastion of Bhutanese entrepreneurial spirit.
Surely something sinister is afoot!
Part II The clarion call that is being sounded for the “liberalization” of tourism business is ill advised, poorly timed and based on all the wrong premises. Even worst, I believe that the pursuit of this agenda goes against Bhutan's national interest and that the reversal of the present policy of “high value, low impact” has the potential to cause irreparable damage to many decades of careful planning and steady advancement. The talk in the tourism circles is that the hotel lobby is behind the push for what they call the “liberalization” of the tourism trade and that they have enlisted the help of some of the National Council members to champion their cause. It is also rumored that sometime back the National Council members engineered a debate on the subject - at the Royal Institute for Governance and Strategic Studies (RIGSS) in Phuentsholing - the motion for liberalization was defeated. The Robin Hoods in the National Council will do well to remember that the House cannot be allowed to be used to further the cause of some select group of people. It must remain focused on issues that further the national interest. In all fairness, I am not really sure if it is indeed the hotel lobby that is instigating the dangerous idea of “liberalization”, or some other interest group. But one thing is sure: the idea is ANTI-NATIONAL! The idea of “liberalization” as it is currently proposed is the very antithesis to our timetested concept of “high value, low impact” tourism. It has the potential to devastate our tourism industry.
Let us examine the issues involved: 1. The concept behind low volume, high value tourism 2. The rationale and merit of the imposition of minimum daily tariff 3. How is tourism traffic to Bhutan generated and who generates them 4. The fuss about under-cutting 5. Generation of foreign exchange and employment.
Demerits of “liberalization” as it is currently proposed: 1. Influx of undesirable category of visitors 2. Poor carrying capacity 3. Social, cultural, religious and environmental impact of uncontrolled
and unregulated tourism 4. Increase in crime rate 5. Plummeting foreign exchange inflow 6. Offshore accounts 7. Poor tax collection through evasion 8. Loss of moral authority to regulate and impose minimum levels of service by tour operators and other service providers - market forces will reign supreme
9. The role of the regulatory body will become redundant. It is said that the only thing that is constant is: evolution. The human race is constantly evolving. Thus we must change and evolve to keep pace and be relevant to changing times and situations. However, change must be meaningful and progressive - not the kind of change we seek - destructive and ruinous.