Tour operators are ambivalent about the special friendship offers that the government has initiated during the lean season in June, July and August.
So far, the government has initiated four friendship offers to four countries, Thailand, Japan and Korea including Australia this year.
The spokesperson of the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), Damcho Rinzin said that the special offers are made by the government to promote people to people contact between two countries and to strengthen bilateral ties through tourism and travel.
The first friendship offer was made to Thailand in 2014 to mark the 25 years of diplomatic relations and the long-standing friendship between the two countries. For the three months’ offer period, around 8,735 Thai tourists visited the country. The highest number of tourists visited in the month of August with 5,076.
However, in the previous year in 2013, only 726 tourists visited the country in the month of June, July and August.
In 2016, a special offer was made to Japan to mark 30 years of diplomatic relations. During the offer period, around 3,346 Japanese tourists visited the country. In 2015, only about 617 tourists visited the country. According to TCB, a total of around US$ 1mn was collected as royalty and visa fees during the offer.
In 2017, the offer was given to Korea to mark three decades of diplomatic relations between the two nations. During the offer period around 5,085 Korean tourists visited the country. In 2016, during the same period, only 309 tourists visited the country.
However, some tour operators who wanted to remain anonymous said that the government needs to decide if they really want to stick by its so called high-value low- impact.
“If it’s what they want then they should stop tampering with the tourism tariff,” said one.
Another said that the government needs to realize that when one starts breaking down the daily tariff then the agents abroad understands the actual cost and starts asking for breakdowns in the future which was not allowed earlier.
“One side you promote Bhutan as a high-end destination and on the other hand you make special offers, trying to play with the figures only without any added value; it kills the market,” said one tour agent, “There is a need to check the situation with the offshore agents and study impact of such friendship offers in the market.”
He said the undercutting by tour operators has happened with Thailand and Japan and will happen with Korea, too.
According to him, the agents abroad start breaking down the cost and there is where undercutting start.
However, the director of Etho Metho Tours and Treks private limited, T. Sangay Wangchuk, said that tourism is a national resource and many stakeholders other than tour operators may be impacted well.
He said that it will have far-reaching benefits to other stakeholders such as government revenue, airlines, hotels and handicrafts.
He said these offers were during the lean season therefore the impact is positive as these months were literally dry in the absence of such strategies.
He also said in term of suitability, in his 28 years of service in tourism, the government tried many mechanisms to solve the lean season issues and friendship offers did solve this pertinent lean season issue.
In tourism there are many categories of travelers: some plan based on their holiday pattern some on seasons and some on budget. The friendship offer initiative brought in many who took advantage of pricing over other factors, he added.
Asked if such initiatives do not undermine the high-value low impact policy, he said it will not.
“When tourism was in the development stages, minimum fixed tariff played a vital role in educating tourism stakeholders. All tourism related pricing then was based on the fixed tariff. Now the industry is fast developing and we require creative polices to monitor tourism business that will still live up the high-value low impact policy,” said T. Sangay Wangchuk.
Similarly, he said the word undercutting in tourism is subject to interpretation. “It is all subject to who can present one’s argument well. The cure to the so called undercutting is product development. We must insist on standard products. When we say products, it must be in form of infrastructures, food and accommodation, human resource, sustainable use of our tangible and intangible heritages and over all developing tourism not just for visitors. Once we have standard tourism products, anything we see as negative will blend to something positive.”
Meanwhile, Damcho Rinzin said that all the friendship offers brought in many tourists so it is effective in terms of attracting tourists. It also encourages single and group of two because surcharge of US$40 per one person and US$30 each for group of two are exempted.
He said it will not undermine the high-value low-impact policy since tourists coming under such friendship offers will have to come under the same tourism arrangement like stay in a TCB certified tourist accommodation facilities, pay the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF), pay visa fees and must use a licensed guide.
The offer allows flexibility in choice of services and get a better deal with special offers from hotels and the airlines, he added.
Meanwhile, the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators refused to comment on the issue.
Dechen Dolkar from Thimphu