In the winter months, Bhutan imports electricity from India – at much higher rates than we export to them during the summer months. We pride ourselves as a net exporter of electricity and claim that our biggest economic activity is generating hydroelectricity. And yet, the Bhutanese people spend hours queuing up at the fuel pump – to buy imported fuel source to cook and heat homes. We are unable to afford the electricity that we generate.
Our farmers auction off thousands of metric tons of potatoes to Indian merchants across the border, during the potato-growing season. Then during the off-season, same potatoes are imported back into the country by the Bhutanese merchants – at almost double the price, to be consumed by the same people who grew them.
We are famous the world over as a nation of EmaDatsi. We consume chilies for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks in between. And yet, we have to import them because we do not grow enough.
Every time I pass by the Hongtso Immigration Check Post, I am puzzled by the logic of its existence at that location. What is the meaning of it, exactly? Bhutan’s most visited place of tourist interest happens to be the DrukWangyelChortens at Dochula. This place is visited more than the famous Taktsang. It is within the administrative boundaries of ThimphuDzongkhag and it is not listed as a Restricted Area. Thus visitors to this place should NOT be required to obtain Restrict Areas Route Permit to visit DrukWangyelChortens.
The gate was originally installed as a forestry produce check-point. Even the person who was responsible to start it originally, is now dead and gone. This gate is a meaningless expenditure for the government and it certainly does not contribute to a happy experience for the tourists. If such a gate is needed at all, it should be relocated to a place where the two territorial boundaries converge – that of Thimphu and Wangdue.
Druk Air is Bhutan’s premier air transport operator of long standing. It certainly helped in putting the country on the tourism world map. But I fear that over time, it was allowed to digress from its original mandate and obligation for which the national flag carrier was created. Or, perhaps the government lost track of the principal role a national flag carrier must play in the overall scheme of things.
Calculated based on the average duration of visitors to Bhutan, today the airfare component works out to over 60% of the TCB’s Minimum Daily Tariff charged to every visitor to the country. This is atrocious. Every time the airfare is quoted to a prospect, they tell us that we are cheating. If Bhutan is to draw in increased international arrivals, we must rationalize the airfare of the Druk Air. The airline must function as a limb that complements and strengthens the body. Given its carrying capacity, it cannot be required to compete with the industry as a profit center. It cannot perform as a commercial entity – unless it does so at the cost of something else. And that is what is currently happening – the airfare of the Druk Air has become a severe deterrent – to the tourism industry’s aspirations for a buoyant growth.
There is a need to de-list Druk Air as a commercial entity – we need them to fulfill a larger national objective, and not be required to serve a narrow mandate of making profit that can only come at the cost of the nation. The basis of Druk Air’s fare structure should not be calculated based on its operating and maintenance costs – other more important considerations must come into the equation. After all, let us admit it – given their fleet size and the routes they serve and the number of people they have to employ, the mathematics do not work – not unless they push the cost on to someone else.
It is all about economies of scale.
The writer is an ardent blogger and the Charter Member of the Rotary Club of Thimphu.