Tourism industry asks for policy on regional tourists

July 29, 2015 By Kinga Dema

Given the increasing arrivals, the industry feel there is a need to have a policy in place

Tourism: The drastic increase in the arrival of regional tourists over the years has pushed tourism stakeholders to call for a policy to govern regional tourists.

Tourism stakeholders raised the issue with the government recently expressing the need for a proper strategy on management and maximising benefits of regional tourists.

Records with the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) show that as of May this year, 45,704 regional tourists visited the country. During the same period last year, 24,059 regional tourists visited the country. From 5,513 regional tourist arrivals in January this year, May alone recorded 18,342 visitors.

Visitors from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives are referred as regional tourists.

Unlike international tourists, regional tourists are exempt from paying the minimum daily tariff of USD 250 and 200 for the peak and lean seasons. They also do not require visas to enter the country.

Records indicate a steady increase in regional tourists over the years. From 50,722 regional tourist arrivals in 2012, it increased to 63,426 and 65,399 in 2013 and 2014 respectively.

Until a couple of years ago, regional tourists were not part of the tourism statistics. However, now that their numbers are used as a yardstick for achieving targets, tour operators said there should be certain regulations in place not just to monitor but also to effectively manage and optimise tourism benefits.

As most regional tourists enter the country unguided and drive their own vehicles without any restriction, tourism stakeholders feel that this could have an impact on the dollar-paying tourists.

Regional tourists process their entry and route permits from the immigration department. The trend is such that a majority of them enter from the border town of Phuentsholing via road. Hoteliers said most prefer to cook on their own and about three to five tourists share a room. Although most hotels don’t allow such arrangements, some do.

All international tourists have to be put up in a three-star category hotel and above while this requirement is not applicable for regional tourists.

Tour operators said that a regulation is a must for regional tourists to offer a meaningful trip. Tour operators have also raised the issue with the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO).

TCB attributes the increase in regional tourists to continued ​awareness on Bhutan as a destination through TCB’s participation in numerous tourism events. However, officials didn’t comment on whether its time for the country to have a tourism policy for regional tourists as well.

ABTO’s executive director Sonam Dorje said that the country has seen more increase in regional tourists than the dollar-paying tourists, especially in the last five years. “The drastic increase in the last two months is mainly owing to diversion of regional tourists whose trips to Nepal got cancelled following the earthquake.”

“As a small country with limited carrying capacity, we do need certain regulations in place even for non-tariff paying tourists,” he said. “A policy would not only help us in sustainably managing our resources but also help visitors have memorable experiences.”

Tour operators said if the issue is not addressed soon, the country could lose high-end tourists who prefer Bhutan as a niche destination.

“Bhutan is a cheap destination for regional tourists as they pay the same air fare as Bhutanese and entrance fees at monuments are also cheaper for them,” a tour operator said. “Some hotels also offer them much cheaper price as hotels get cash payment.”

Another tour operator who also caters to regional tourists said that as a small country, there should not be two different tourism policies. “We might have enough hotels now but we’ve only have few tourist sites and it’s getting over crowded,” he said. “This will discourage dollar-paying tourists who solely visit Bhutan as an exclusive destination.”

If regional tourists are regulated well, tour operators and guides said it would help solve the existing seasonality issue as most regional tourists travel to Bhutan to escape the heat during the summer months. Some suggested that a SAARC rate of just charging royalty should be in place.

Guides Association of Bhutan’s chairman Garab Dorji said that with the increasing regional tourists, the tourist hotspots become crowded during peak seasons. “Unregulated regional tourists are against our policy of high value, low volume,” he said, adding that regional tourists are difficult to manage and have disciplinary issues.

Garab Dorji also pointed out the need to assess the contribution of regional tourists to the economy should the trend continue.

Bhutan’s dark secret to Happiness

Citizens of one of the happiest countries on Earth are surprisingly comfortable contemplating a topic many prefer to avoid. Is that the key to joy?

8 April 2015 By Eric Weiner

On a visit to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, I found myself sitting across from a man named Karma Ura, spilling my guts. Maybe it was the fact that he was named Karma, or the thin air, or the way travel melts my defences, but I decided to confess something very personal. Not that long before, seemingly out of the blue, I had experienced some disturbing symptoms: shortness of breath, dizziness, numbness in my hands and feet. At first, I feared I was having a heart attack, or going crazy. Maybe both. So I went to the doctor, who ran a series of tests and found  “Nothing,” said Ura. Even before I could complete my sentence, he knew that my fears were unfounded. I was not dying, at least not as quickly as I feared. I was having a panic attack.

What I wanted to know was: why now – my life was going uncharacteristically well – and what could I do about it? “You need to think about death for five minutes every day,” Ura replied. “It will cure you.” “How?” I said, dumbfounded. “It is this thing, this fear of death, this fear of dying before we have accomplished what we want or seen our children grow. This is what is troubling you.” “But why would I want to think about something so depressing?” “Rich people in the West, they have not touched dead bodies, fresh wounds, rotten things. This is a problem. This is the human condition. We have to be ready for the moment we cease to exist.”

Places, like people, have a way of surprising us, provided we are open to the possibility of surprise and not weighed down with preconceived notions. The Himalayan kingdom is best known for its innovative policy of Gross National Happiness; it’s a land where contentment supposedly reigns and sorrow is denied entry. Bhutan is indeed a special place (and Ura, director of the Centre for Bhutan Studies, a special person) but that specialness is more nuanced and, frankly, less sunny than the dreamy Shangri-La image we project onto it.

Actually, by suggesting I think about death once a day, Ura was going easy on me. In Bhutanese culture, one is expected to think about death five times a day. That would be remarkable for any nation, but especially for one so closely equated with happiness as Bhutan. Is this secretly a land of darkness and despair? Not necessarily. Some recent research suggests that, by thinking about death so often, the Bhutanese may be on to something. In a 2007 study, University of Kentucky psychologists Nathan DeWall and Roy Baumesiter divided several dozen students into two groups. One group was told to think about a painful visit to the dentist while the other group was instructed to contemplate their own death. Both groups were then asked to complete stem words, such as “jo_”. The second group – the one that had been thinking about death – was far more likely to construct positive words, such as “joy”. This led the researchers to conclude that “death is a psychologically threatening fact, but when people contemplate it, apparently the automatic system begins to search for happy thoughts”.

None of this, I’m sure, would surprise Ura, or any other Bhutanese. They know that death is a part of life, whether we like it or not, and ignoring this essential truth comes with a heavy psychological cost.

Linda Leaming, author of the wonderful book A Field Guide to Happiness: What I Learned in Bhutan About Living, Loving and Waking Up¸ knows this too.“I realised thinking about death doesn’t depress me. It makes me seize the moment and see things I might not ordinarily see,” she wrote. “My best advice: go there. Think the unthinkable, the thing that scares you to think about several times a day.”

Unlike many of us in the West, the Bhutanese don’t sequester death. Death – and images of death – are everywhere, especially in Buddhist iconography where you’ll find colourful, gruesome illustrations. No one, not even children, is sheltered from these images, or from ritual dances re-enacting death. Ritual provides a container for grief, and in Bhutan that container is large and communal. After someone dies, there’s a 49-day mourning period that involves elaborate, carefully orchestrated rituals. “It is better than any antidepressant,” Tshewang Dendup, a Bhutanese actor, told me. The Bhutanese might appear detached during this time. They are not. They are grieving through ritual. Why such a different attitude toward death? One reason the Bhutanese think about death so often is that it is all around them. For a small nation, it offers many ways to die. You can meet your demise on the winding, treacherous roads. You can be mauled by a bear; eat poisonous mushrooms; or die of exposure. Another explanation is the country’s deeply felt Buddhist beliefs, especially that of reincarnation. If you know you’ll get another shot at life, you’re less likely to fear the end of this particular one. As Buddhists say, you shouldn’t fear dying any more than you fear discarding old clothes.

Which isn’t to say, of course, that the Bhutanese don’t experience fear, or sadness. Of course they do. But, as Leaming told me, they don’t flee from these emotions. “We in the West want to fix it if we’re sad,” she said. “We fear sadness. It’s something to get over, medicate. In Bhutan there’s an acceptance. It’s a part of life.” Ura’s lesson, meanwhile, stuck with me. I make it a point to think about death once a day. Unless I find myself especially stressed, or engulfed in an unexplained funk. Then I think about it twice a day.

Eric Weiner is a recovering malcontent and philosophical traveler. He is the author of, among other books, The Geography of Bliss and the forthcoming The Geography of Genius. Follow him on Twitter.