Levying Sustainable Development Fee, either Nu 3,000 for each tourist or Nu 300 per day per tourist, is one of the possible solutions suggested
Foreign Affairs Minister Dr. Tandi Dorji was questioned on the government’s policies and plans to regulate mass regional tourists by Deputy Chairperson of National Council (NC) Jigme Wangchuk during the NC Question and Answer session yesterday.
The mass regional tourists in the country if not controlled could impede the tourism policy of the country and lead to deterioration of the country’s culture and environment, said the Deputy Chairperson.
Additionally, he said it is not in line with the tourism policy of ‘High Value, Low Impact’ and that tourists are facing inadequate accommodations in the country.
The Foreign Minister, who is also the Chairman of the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), responded by outlining the number of tourists who visited the country in 2018.
From a total of 274,000 tourists in 2018, 202,290 tourists accounting for 74% were regional tourists, according to Lyonpo Dr. Tandi Dorji. There were 10,000 tourists from Bangladesh and 3,000 from Maldives and the rest from India.
According to the minister, TCB made US$ 85mn from international tourists and as per the conversation with regional tourists, most of them stay for a minimum of five days in the country and spend US$ 80 a day. And if US$ 80 a day is spent by 200,000 regional tourists, it would come to US$ 80mn, he added.
Lyonpo also shared that tourism industry employs 27,000 people and the government plans to add 15,000 more within the next five years.
“Regional or international tourists, they all are tourists, and through the tourism policy we will standardize all,” Lyonpo said, adding that differentiating international and regional tourists could affect the relationships between two countries.
Lyonpo Dr. Tandi Dorji said the issue of mass regional tourists is a concern and there were several discussions with the Prime Minister of Bhutan and the Prime Minister of India during the previous government and that it is continuing now as well.
Among the possible solutions to curb the issue of regional tourists, the minister deliberated on the e-permit system used for issuing tourist permit in 2017.
‘We are discussing with India. As the system requires passport of an individual to enter the country, however, India suggested voter card as permit,” he said.
The other solution, Lyonpo suggested, was levying the Sustainable Development Fee – either Nu 3,000 would be charged for each tourist or Nu 300 per day for a tourist.
“The decision is also not clear on whether it would be charged only during the peak season or otherwise,” he added.
The other solution, Lyonpo said, was to levy green tax for those regional tourists driving their own cars and have the vehicle fitness tested by the Road Safety and Transport Authority.
Lyonpo added that India also suggested on capping the number of tourists visiting the country.
Lyonpo also informed the House that the National Tourism Policy (NTP) is in the drafting stage and it includes policies for regional tourism as well as reviewing the Tourism Rules and Regulations 2017.
“The NTP is expected to be complete by December this year and the government would enforce it by the beginning of next year,” the minister said, adding that the government also expects Tourism Bill to be tabled in next year’s summer or winter Parliament session.
Meanwhile, NC representative from Trashigang, Lhatu, asked the Foreign Minister on how the government is planning to bring balanced tourism development regionally.
Responding to the query, Lyonpo Dr. Tandi Dorji said there are flagship programs in the 12th Five Year Plan. The government has allocated a total budget of Nu 1.5bn of which Nu 800mn has been allocated for research, training, and branding of the regions and dzongkhags and their promotion.
“Four dzongkhags of Gasa, Dagana, Lhuntse, and one yet to be finalized from Trongsa, Sarpang and Zhemgang were identified as per the least tourist arrivals. And to develop unique products from these dzongkhags, Nu 300mn have been allocated,” the minister said.
NC representative from Thimphu, Tshewang Rinzin, also asked about the government’s plan to have a cultural fund (for renovation, repair and maintenance of tourist cultural sites).
Lyonpo responded that tourists are charged Nu 300 to Nu 500 for visiting some of the cultural sites in the country and plans are there to add several more.
“The government is in discussion with the home ministry, TCB and finance ministry. The fee could be used as cultural current fund and we are hopeful to have a capital of Nu 1bn,” the Lyonpo added.
Thukten Zangpo from Thimphu