Bhutan throws up pay wall amid surge of Indian tourists

Bhutan throws up pay wall amid surge of Indian tourists

Flood of ‘unregulated’ tourists has prompted measures from pristine Himalayan destination

For centuries, parents of newborn children in the Thimphu valley have visited the Changangkha Lhakhang (temple) that rises above the Bhutanese capital, bringing their babies as young as four or five days old to be blessed by its deity.

But a surge of tourist inflows into Bhutan this year has left parents and pilgrims jostling for space in the temple’s small inner sanctum.

The crowds have sparked a major debate across the country that could mean tougher regulations for tourists from the region, especially India.

“It was suffocating for the mothers who were trying to get blessings for their children,” explains a guard outside the temple, “They could barely say their prayers and they were very upset,” he added.

On June 7, the Tourism Council announced it was shutting the temple to all tourists for the three months, or peak season. The notice, printed on a board outside the temple, says the closure was in the “interest of the safety of the tourists”, and was done so as to allow “important religious events” to be conducted inside.

Entrance fees

When the doors of Changangkha Lhakhang re-open to tourists, they will be charged 300 Ngultrums (₹300) as entrance fees, the government has decided.

Other monasteries and temples in the country, known for its deep Buddhist religiosity, are quickly following suit.

The measures are part of an entire list being compiled by the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) in response to the large numbers of “unregulated” tourists now making a beeline for the Himalayan Kingdom, once called the “Last Shangri-La” for its remoteness and pristine environment.

For decades, Bhutan’s government promoted an exclusive brand of “high value, low volume/ impact” tourism, that brought in only a few tourists willing to pay well for luxury hotel brands, rather than ‘backpackers’ and tourists looking for a cheap holiday.

Bhutan charges a $250 (₹17,500) mandatory cover-charge per day for all tourists except those from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives. Indians, especially those driving in directly from West Bengal through the border town of Phuentsholing, don’t need visas to Bhutan and account for most of the “unregulated” tourists. In 2017, these tourists made up more than 2,00,000 of the approximately 2,70,000 tourist arrivals, a surge that the government says the country is unprepared for.

“Indian visitors are very welcome in Bhutan, but if our infrastructure is not able to cater to them, or if our tourism industry is unable to entertain the guests well, then that is not good for them either. We wouldn’t want such a situation to impinge upon the Indo-Bhutan relationship,” Bhutan’s Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering told The Hindu.

“The increasing numbers of tourist arrivals are to our advantage economically, but our biggest worry is that there should be no friction between our visitors and our Bhutanese people,” Dr. Tshering said during an interview at his office in Thimphu.

Making the crisis more acute is the fact that more than a 100 new hotels that cater to budget tourists are coming up in the main tourist towns of Paro, Thimphu and Bumthang, and most are being built with loans from banks that won’t be repaid unless the number of tourists steadily increases.

According to Garab Dorji, the Chairman of the Guides Association of Bhutan, a tour guide himself, this is leading to many hotels undercutting each other in a bid to raise occupancy levels, dropping rates to as low as ₹1,000 a night.

Officials say the hotel construction boom could also cause a housing crunch for residents and add to water shortages.

“The tourists they attract unfortunately, are not interested in preserving Bhutan’s culture or environment,” says Mr. Dorji, who describes arguments with tourists who refuse to follow Bhutan’s strict dress code in Dzongs (forts) and Lakhangs, play loud music, and leave litter in public areas.

According to Mr. Dorji and other tourism industry insiders, the problems with the regional tourists are now driving away the dollar-paying high-end European, Japanese and even Indian tourist groups, who seek a less crowded experience.

“I know at least one very famous international travel agency that has announced it will not bring tours to Bhutan after 2020 because of the mass tourism,” he said.

As a result, the government is looking at a series of measures to balance the increasing numbers of tourists with regulations to control their behaviour.

Tourists from India (and Bangladesh and the Maldives) could be asked to pay a “Sustainable Development Fee” of ₹500 on arrival, more tourists sites will charge entrance fees, while the Tourism Council of Bhutan, that has so far only regulated three-star hotels and above, make get oversight of all hotels in the country.

Contrary to many other countries seeking to attract more and more tourists, the TCB is also scaling down its targets from a plan for 5,00,000 tourists in 2023, to less than 4,00,000, reported local paper The Bhutanese, as part of efforts to tackle Bhutan’s problem of plenty.

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