“The Royal Government of Bhutan has prioritized tourism as one of the lead sectors in view of its tremendous potential to generate employment and promote socio-economic development thereby contributing to Gross National Happiness…”

Naturally for 2011, Bhutan is bracing for an unprecedented flow of tourists for all over the world. The government is forecasting around 100,000 high end tourists for this year. Already Association of Bhutan Tour Operators cautioned the number as being too ambitious, and expected only about 60,000 high end guests.

However, three weeks ago a distant occurrence in the Pacific Ocean might change that forecast. As the tsunami hit north-eastern part of Japan, it brings to mind ramifications. When catastrophe of this size hits anywhere in the world now, it’s never an isolated event. Aftershocks and ripples will be felt all over the world. The tragedy will manifest in different ways to different sections of society all over the world. As losses run into trillions, the Japanese will begin their arduous journey of rebuilding their lives.

Countries like USA, Malaysia, etc. have already forecasted how this tsunami detrimentally affects their tourism. But, it isn’t the only sector that will be affected, albeit not directly. For 2010 Bhutan received 40,873 high end tourists and it was calculated that the sector generated a total of 7,481 direct and between 10,320 & 12,120 indirect employment. This number exceeded its own target of 35,000 tourists by nearly 17%. Japanese tourists rank at the top with one of the highest number of tourists in 2010 with 3000+ guests, only surpassed by the Americans.

This year might be a one of those years we will most naturally see a dip in the sector. Phenomena like natural disasters, political instability, radicalism, terrorism, etc are major deterrents to travel. Tourism as a nomenclature is movement of people for travel and leisure for a shorter period of time(less than 1 year). As a tourist destination, a country is laden with the task of convincing normality, tolerance, acceptance, stability, etc to attract guests. It poses a fine balancing act, which requires the ownership of citizens to be responsible towards conveying an accepted normalcy to guests.

It’s a hard act to keep up; especially if there is political unrest and each team is vying for power and legitimacy. The civil riots of early 2010 in Thailand totally annihilated tourism for those couple of months. As a popular transit and tourist destination, Thailand calculated a loss of billions of dollars for that period.

Bhutan is gifted with scenic beauty, unique culture, inimitable philosophy of Gross National Happiness and stable leadership; these attributes coupled with taglines of ‘Last Shangri-La’ and ‘Where Happiness is a Place’ allows us to levy the high tariff of USD 200-250 daily. But, as a country with a population of rare leisure travelers, we mostly play the host.

The difficulties in our tourism sector is, without a doubt, pronounced and professed –subtle acceptance or blatant outcry- in guide books and magazines. Our erstwhile deficiency of professionalism in this service sector was viewed upon as a quirk attributed to most under-developed quaint countries around the world. But the last 4 decades has been a journey towards achieving excellence in service. Introduction of FDI in the hotel industry opened new avenues to exploit standardized etiquettes. As hospitality etiquettes are most vital to tourism, our government has put extra impetus on trainings in hospitality and guiding.

However, it would be good to note that our travel agencies are mostly concentrated on the tariff paying tourist and negligent to the regional tourist, and totally ignorant to local tourists. There is a general agreement that once a tariff paying guest is confirmed, an agency can already estimate its net profits, since a guest will invariably rely on the agency for travel, food, hotel and guide (which the daily tariff must cover.)

Only now are we beginning to capture the importance of regional tourists. Yearly we see a marked rise in Indian tourists filing into the country on holidays. Admitted that due to our wonderful relation with India, they are exempt from paying the high tariff, but the logic is they still require hiring vehicles, guides, eating and sleeping while in the country. Maybe the travel agencies will not be able to estimate a larger and direct profit, but our taxis, restaurants, local handicraft vendors and hotels will benefit. It is opportune that Bhutan is trying to work with companies like MakeMyTrip to boost regional tourist influx now.

To draw light to another aspect of tourism, most of us have noticed and commented the flow of local tourists to popular destinations and sights. Agra as the place of Taj Mahal will probably have equal number of local as well as international tourists. Or any other place of interest in India. Yes, India is a large country with an increasingly large population which without a doubt creates density, but opportunities of self-sustainability also. We are talking about retention of income within a country, and yet looking to improve prospects of exchange of tourists as well.

We can take from them the trend of promoting local tourism in our own country as well. We can begin making local trip or trips within the country attractive. Why is it not done? Mobility isn’t a deterrent now that most regions are connected. As it is, most of the infrastructures are already in place to cater to international tourist; why not make it accessible to locals? It’s an annual trend that every winter Bhutanese travel out of the country for pilgrimage. Where is the retention? It’s not because Bhutan lacks sights of religious interest; in fact, throughout the country such sights are speckled plenty.

What is lacking now and requires is to begin shedding light and commitment towards these strands of tourism. Arguments that most Bhutanese travelers within the country stay at private premises of friends and family are rampant, but this will change very soon if not already. The new and educated lot prefers to pay for the guiltless comfort at hotels. As population increases with increased standard of living, we should be adequately prepared. The whole make of changing society will demand it, even if we profusely refute any mutation in our social fabric.

Even as we implore the loss of our traditional hospitality, we can turn the tables by introducing cultural and religious tourism for our own people. For example, parents should be encouraged to take trips around the country to educate their children on local culture and customs. These kinds of strategies will provide for a well balanced approach to growth within the country, and provide opportunities for firsthand experience.

As a general rule among Bhutanese, we always profess exposure and firsthand experience is the best educator. And it is for the experience we like to travel and see places; otherwise wouldn’t a text or photograph suffice? Why not try to mint some monies as well as bring regional development and cultural enrichment this way? As affluent Bhutanese are slowly beginning to travel out of the country for leisure, it will be also be socially and economically responsible to promote local tourism.

Always banking on international guests might be risky, considering no event elsewhere is isolated. Already because of the tsunami our tour operators have large number of cancellations with Japanese tourists. Chances are the numbers of cancellation of travel plans with other international tourists will increase. As we are indirectly affected by the tsunami, so are other nations that have trade relations with Japan. These ripples will irrevocably affect rungs of society all around the world.

As rebuilding begins in Japan, industrial raw materials, labor and taxes are bound to rise. Everybody is bound to feel the pinch. As a tourist destination, our tour agents will be the first one to be hit. As tourist numbers decreases, so must the number of hired freelance guides and drivers. Indirectly income of taxi drivers, restaurateurs, hoteliers, potters, shopkeepers, etc will all decrease. Banks will also feel effects by way of fewer deposits, and less interest accrued.

This tragic event for Japan might be a time for Bhutan to assess current trends, explore diversity and have contingencies for tourism growth. The risk of globalization is as it meshes economies, it also brings forth manifestations from a seemingly isolated event. Isolation in this age is only physical, if ever it is.

* Article for The Journalist, 3rd April 2011.


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