Bhutan Holds First National Tourism Conference: Here Are Some Key Takeaways
Organised by the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), the conference on Wednesday and Thursday saw around 200 participants from various sectors.
By Kinley Yangden | Daily Bhutan
The inaugural National Tourism Conference (NTC) was held in Thimphu over two days at the Royal Institute for Tourism and Hospitality (RITH), involving stakeholders from government agencies, NGOs, tour operators, associations, hoteliers and other private sectors.
Organised by the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), the conference on Wednesday and Thursday saw around 200 participants from various sectors coming together to discuss issues that have prevailed the tourism industry, such as sustainable tourism practices, waste management, cultural preservation, increase in airfares, and even low daily allowances for guides.
The first day of the conference was graced by His Excellency the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Dr Lotay Tshering. In his opening address, he said: “Tourism should be close to the hearts of all Bhutanese.”
He then gave a medical analogy, urging participants to “scan for tumors and diseases” and have them removed so that the tourism sector can perform healthily. He also assured stakeholders that proceedings and outcomes of the conference will be assessed and taken seriously with the “utmost importance”.
After a rap performance by local rapper Nala, the conference commenced on the first day with tourism updates and panel discussions. On the second day, breakout sessions were held in five tracks - private sectors, government agencies, dzongkhags, NGOs, and media - for participants to discuss and present their concerns, findings and resolutions.
Here are some key takeaways from the two days at the National Tourism Conference:
TCB announces upcoming strategies on tourism flagship programme
Director General of TCB, Mr Dorji Dhradhul, gave updates on the performance of the tourism sector, upcoming strategies, and the projected outlook. According to data from TCB, should tourism be adopted under the government’s 12th Five Year Plan, tourist arrivals is targeted to grow from 274,00 to 466,900 by 2023. And revenue is also expected to increase from 1.57 billion Nu to 5.48 billion Nu by 2023.
He also announced that TCB identified five dzongkhags to focus the flagship programme on: Dagana, Gasa, Lhuentse, Zhemgang and Samtse, as these are the five districts with the lowest tourist arrivals, according to Mr Dorji.
Within the flagship programme, some strategies include improving infrastructures, and developing more products and events.
Rationalisation of airfare needed: Participants
Airfare increase was one of the bugbears of tour operators and other stakeholders, and was raised several times over the two days. They stated that the recent increase in airfares in the Bangkok sector was a deterrent for visitors to the country. In the breakout session, NGO stakeholders also identified airfares as a bottleneck in attracting more MICE visitors to Bhutan.
Suggestions were also made to subsidise airfares for domestic flights, improve the connections and to ensure that internal flights are not cancelled.
Mr Wangchuk Tshering from Drukair responded during the conference that there is a long list of reasons to the airfare increase, and in a nutshell, the justification for airfare increase is due to “limited operating conditions at Paro International Airport, huge costs and restrictions, that have been barely sustainable”.
“(But) let’s find a middle path,” he said.
Mr Wangchuk also announced at the conference that Drukair is looking at expanding its network to the Middle East, Japan and Korea by mid-2020.
Be mindful of retaining Bhutan's unique culture
The Department of Culture emphasized that tourism cannot be promoted at the cost of culture, and that tourism and culture are interdependent of each other because tourists visit Bhutan for its rich nature and culture.
“Tourism is important, but we must bear the responsibility of respecting culture too,” said Mr Karma, who added that current issues such as restricted rafting areas and restriction on drones need to be addressed by the tourism flagship programme in the near future.
Lopen Rinzin from the Central Monastic Body also echoed Mr Karma’s sentiments on the importance of transmitting accurate and authentic information to tourists regarding sacred religious and cultural rituals of Bhutan.
The issue of promoting locally made handicraft and souvenirs was also brought up, where guides are encouraged to promote local goods, rather than imported ones. However, challenges of authenticating local products still remain and are not competitive in pricing when compared to imported products.
Resolving issues with seasonality
Representatives from hotels and the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan (HRAB) voiced concern over low occupancy rate during the low seasons in summer and winter.
One participant suggested having the same minimum daily package rates across all months to curb this issue by attracting visitors throughout the year. However, this proposal was up for debate, as other participants argued against the suggestion.
During the breakout session, the private sectors group suggested a change in policies to help improve occupancy from budget to five-star hotels.
In addition, another issue raised by hoteliers is regarding payments to TCB. Some hotels are facing issues with dues from tour operators not being able to be collected. They reckoned a mechanism can be in place to resolve this between TCB and tour operators.
Lack in skilled workforce and training opportunities for guides
The slow population growth in Bhutan is hampering the workforce in the tourism sector as there is a lack of skilled workers to provide quality service, said the acting chairman of HRAB, Mr Sonam Wangchuk during a panel session.
“High value tourism has to be made up by a skilled and quality workforce. Hospitality training should not be limited to RITH and private institutes should be given more incentives to train people too,” said a participant from the private sectors group.
Mr Garab Dorji, chairman of Guides Association of Bhutan (GAB), also cited lack of budget and training opportunities for guides to upgrade themselves. He also brought up a longstanding issue of low daily allowances, or DSA, of guides.
“How can a guide work professionally when they don’t even know where they’ll be sleeping at night?”, said Mr Garab, who during the panel session, also called out some 4- and 5-star hotels for mistreating guides and drivers when they take their guests to the property.
Waste management issues
Waste is a major concern in Bhutan and could be detrimental to tourism, as cited by Mr Dorji in a Kuensel article.
The issue of waste management was also brought up a few times by concerned parties. Mr Passang Tshering, executive director of Bhutan Toilet Organization (BTO), said during his panel session that guides should not promote “open air toilets” to their visitors, in order to curb the issue of human waste. He also noted that there is a need of a restroom management plan, as restrooms along the highways or travel routes are not well managed or maintained.
A member of the audience suggested that cafes or restaurants could be built with the toilets, so that there is a vested interest from the proprietor to manage the washrooms and also help to generate a source of income too.
It was also mentioned that NGO group Clean Bhutan faced funding problems. A recommendation was to bring them into the fold of TCB or a government establishment in order for them to achieve their aspirations.
Other tourism products and areas to consider
Mr Yeshey Dorji from the Rotary Club of Thimphu said wilderness medicine training for guides is an important matter, especially when they take tourists out on treks. It was something that was not offered in the past and Mr Yeshey said that the training is now offered through GAB.
He also stated that MICE should be promoted more in Bhutan. He related that he had helped bring in hundreds of MICE participants in the past year and saw that there was potential in expanding such tourism, but noted that a deterrent from visitors were the expensive airfares.
The opportunity of MICE tourism was also brought up by a representative from the Royal Textiles Academy, who noted that they are currently establishing a large convention centre to host such events. He also recommended a Convention Bureau to be set up to handle future conferences and events in Bhutan.
Wellness tourism was also brought up by a participant as a product worth promoting and expanding into. Two content experts: Pema Choden Tenzin, editor of Yeewong Magazine, and Tshering Denkar from Denkar’s Getaway, both expressed their enthusiasm for domestic tourism, stating that it is something that Bhutan should start focusing on.
Bhutan may have second international airport: DoAT
The Department of Air Transport says they are currently studying the feasibility of a second international airport in Bhutan to enhance connectivity to other parts of the country. Bhutan has only one international airport at the moment and is located in Paro.
Two-day conference ended with emotional tribute
The conference ended on an emotional note with a tribute to the late guide Mr Tshetrim, 26, who died while saving a tourist from drowning in Mebar Tsho in 2015.