The piteous state of the East-West Highway because of the ongoing widening works has exacerbated problems to people and commuters, besides also putting commuters’ lives at risk. However, MoWHS minister says it is not a national issue
Having recently dealt with a severely damaged pair of tyres and car engine due to the absolutely horrendous road conditions of the East-West Highway, especially from Thimphu to Bumthang, Sonam Tshering from Lhuentse, one of the frequent travelers, describes the roads as worse than a farm road. He says it’s more like a paddy field.
“How can we expect vehicles to maneuver through these roads without problems? We have better road than this in our village. It’s simply not drivable for small vehicles,” he added, saying that there is also no one to monitor. “If there is a traffic jam, it takes hours,” he said.
And come little rain for a day or two, another commuter, Dawa, said it becomes dangerous. “We see boulders and soil coming down; sometimes appearing it may cover us all. It becomes extremely dangerous.”
“The road becomes extremely slippery and muddy. We don’t know whether to keep an eye on what is above us or to keep an eye on the road to escape the big stones and holes hitting our vehicle engine,” he added. “One may be lucky if the road is not blocked by the boulders and debris due to landslides.”
Meto Transport driver Passang Sherpa says he had to spend two nights on the way to Bumthang with one of his colleagues and passengers last month. “There were no restaurants or hotels nearby. We slept in the bus,” he added.
The bus driver says it took 18 hours now to reach Bumthang from Thimphu, which earlier took 11 hours. “Because of widening works, there is always landslide and the construction workers don’t clear the road properly. It damages our bus. Sometimes we get stuck and I have to request passengers to push the bus. It’s hard for us especially when there are elderly people as passengers,” says Passang Sherpa.
Most commuters along the East-west Highway say that the road conditions from Tsheringma Drupchu before reaching Trongsa to Yotongla pass are in their worse conditions.
“It’s very dangerous as well. Contractors who have been given works in these areas seriously need to think about the safety of commuters and expedite the work. They shouldn’t just focus on making money,” another commuter said.
Guides & Tour Operators
Similarly, a senior tour guide, Jimba Phuntsho, has a similar opinion of the road conditions.
“The construction workers are just clearing small path for the vehicles to pass through. But there are vehicles from both sides and with only a small path, it creates traffic jam and again there are no RSTA officials to control the traffic. It takes hours to clear the traffic congestion,” he said.
He added that he was supposed to travel to Bumthang last week with his guests, but had to cancel his trip owing to the bad conditions of the road.
It’s simply not tour guides who are bearing the brunt of the widening works of the East-West Highway.
Many tour operators are also cancelling trips for their guests that involve driving on road to Trongsa, Bumthang and Eastern Bhutan. Many say they don’t get drivers and vehicles on hire that would go to these areas.
“Looking at the bad conditions of the road, sometimes we cancel the trip because we don’t want to risk their lives and sometimes it’s the guest who in fear decides to come back from half way,” said Jimba Phuntsho, who lost 10 groups of guest this month.
Cancelling the trip, he said, meant huge loss for the travel agent and also for the tour operator. “We came across many tourists who get angry and want their money back. Most of the time we negotiate and offer them tour to other Dzongkhags,” said Sangay Dorji, who has been a tour guide for more than 20 years. “My guests told me that they will visit Bhutan only when the widening works of the highway are completed. Some even told me they won’t recommend their family and relatives to visit Bhutan,” he added.
Even to hire vehicle on rental basis has become a huge problem for tour operators today. Looking at the road conditions, vehicle owners refuse to rent their vehicles or one should be ready to pay double or sometimes even triple the rate.
Jimba Phuntsho says he was charged 25% extra for hiring a vehicle last month.
The total visitor arrivals, comprising both regional and international visitors, increased to 209,570 last year, which was a growth of 35% over 2015. However, tourist arrival to eastern side of Bhutan dropped drastically.
According to the hoteliers, tourist arrival in Central and Eastern Bhutan are expected to further decline as a result of the road widening works.
The owner of Druk Deothjong Resort in Trashigang, Jambay Yudon, says business has become worse in the last two years with a deluge of guests cancelling reservations at the last moment.
“I don’t even charge cancellation fees. It’s not that they booked rooms in other hotels, but they couldn’t even reach here and we can’t blame the guests for our own country’s bad road conditions,” she said.
However, she says she is hopeful that the government would expedite and complete the work quickly. “It will benefit all the people,” she added.
Meanwhile, Chairman of the Hotel Association of Bumthang (HAB) Tandin Dorji said the bad road conditions as a result of road widening works is the main reason tourism business has been affected in Bumthang.
“The visiting guests (tourists) were not happy with the road conditions and this information and news may spread and might affect tourist inflow next year,” he added.
Pema Dawa, the owner of River Lodge in Bumthang, attributed the drastic decline of 60% of his business to the bad road conditions and an unpredictable Drukair flight schedule.
“Bhutan’s road is garbage. Well, that is what my guest told me. And they are right and even the government is doing nothing about it,” he says, frustrated. “Hotels are struggling to survive in the business with some unable to pay salaries to employees and repay bank loans.”
Meanwhile, hoteliers say they have raised the issue to Prime Minister Dasho Tshering Tobgay last year and also this year.
Chairman Tandin Dorji said, “Lyonchhen has assured his full support. We would like to request our government for more attention and follow-up the progress of the works at the site. Most of the bad road conditions are due to negligence of contractors and site engineers.”
MoWHS Minister to Business Bhutan
Speaking to Business Bhutan, the works and human settlement minister Dorji Choden said they are still committed to complete the East-West Highway by early 2018.
“The works are being done through contracts and we have over 40 contract packages on the E-W highway,” she said. “While majority of the contract packages have delivered the work as planned, however, we have some problem with few contractors who are behind the schedule. We are monitoring closely their progress.”
The minister said risks are always there in hilly roads for commuters as well as for the road workers during the rainy season and that rains are heavy year after year.
“With the widening works, risks have increased to some degree but all measures are taken to inform the commuters on the road conditions and advising them to avoid traveling at nights,” she said.
She added that it is not a national issue as the road stretches that are bad are only in few locations such as near Nobding and in Trongsa area.
According to the Lyonpo, the road widening and improvement to the highway is the lifeline to almost all the population of the 20 Dzongkhags in the country.
Pema Seldon from Thimphu