Bhutanese Tourism In­dus­try Un­der At­tack

Business Bhutan - - Opinion - Yeshey Dorji The writer is a pho­tog­ra­pher by pro­fes­sion. He is also the Char­ter Mem­ber of the Ro­tary Club of Thim­phu. An avid blog­ger, his writ­ing can be found at http://yeshey­dorji.blogspot.com

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.

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