Tourism in Bhutan has come a long way since the coronation of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo when the country first officially opened to tourism in 1974. Since then the numbers of tourists have soared from a few hundreds to millions today.
Besides the numbers, tourism has been pivotal to the nation in terms of revenue generation, employment creation, promoting Bhutanese arts, culture and traditions, showcasing Bhutan to the outside world, and uplifting the livelihoods of people in places that are thronged by foreign tourists. But as we delve into the benefits, it is ostensible that the eastern region of the country is yet to reap the fruits of this sector which are hitherto enjoyed by the western region of the country.
Unequivocally, eastern Bhutan is one of the least explored regions of the kingdom unlike its western counterparts such as Paro, Thimphu, Punakha, and Wangdue in the west, and Trongsa and Bumthang in central Bhutan.
It is befitting and timely, therefore, that initiatives are being explored and undertaken to promote tourism in the east. One recent proposal has come in the form of the government proposing to waive off the daily royalty of US$ 65 a day per tourist visiting the eastern Dzongkhags in the country. Such a move was reasoned considering that only about two percent of tourists that come to Bhutan visit eastern Bhutan and the government has promised to augment this to around 20%.
Recently, the Tourism Council of Bhutan has been organizing familiarization tours for tour operators and guides to promote sacred sites and tourists’ attractions in Mongar and Lhuntse as part of their initiative to promote tourism in the east. It is a good initiative that tour operators and guides have been brought on board for this exercise. As it goes without saying, tour operators dictate when it comes to places and attractions a tourist is likely to visit while in Bhutan since they are responsible for making the tour itineraries and the guides too in executing those itineraries. Therefore, tour operators can play a mammoth role in promoting uniform distribution of economic benefits from the tourism sector, especially in the east.
This is also because of the mere fact that most tour packages that are sold to foreign tourists still continue to be concentrated only within the Dzongkhags that are traditionally tourist-rich. There are obvious reasons too. East has its own problems from poor accommodation facilities and infrastructure to tourist amenities, bad road conditions and unreliable air connectivity, albeit the huge tourism potential.
Incentivizing the tour operators promoting the east can be a solution, therefore, to promote tourism in the east, but most importantly we need to have basic amenities for tourists adequately as we endeavor to accelerate development of tourism in the east. The recognition that the east must reap the benefits of the tourism sector and the simultaneous plans and proposed measures to achieve this is a good beginning, at least for now.