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The dwindling number of tourists present challenges for tour guides

โ€ฆ ๐’˜๐’Š๐’•๐’‰ ๐’…๐’†๐’„๐’“๐’†๐’‚๐’”๐’Š๐’๐’ˆ ๐’๐’–๐’Ž๐’ƒ๐’†๐’“ ๐’๐’‡ ๐’•๐’๐’–๐’“๐’Š๐’”๐’•๐’” ๐’‘๐’๐’”๐’•-๐’‘๐’‚๐’๐’…๐’†๐’Ž๐’Š๐’„, ๐’•๐’‰๐’† ๐’”๐’–๐’ƒ๐’”๐’Š๐’”๐’•๐’†๐’๐’„๐’† ๐’๐’‡ ๐’•๐’๐’–๐’“ ๐’ˆ๐’–๐’Š๐’…๐’†๐’” ๐’‚๐’“๐’† ๐’•๐’‰๐’“๐’†๐’‚๐’•๐’†๐’๐’†๐’…

Tenzin Lhaden

The tourism sector, one of the highest contributors to the countryโ€™s Gross Domestic Product, was hit the hardest and revealed how hard it had hit the country which relies so heavily on visitors.

The tourism reforms changed the tourism business modus operandi impacting many tour operators and guides alike, and with implementation of Tourism Levy Bill 2022 from June 2022, the sector saw further ramifications threatening livelihoods of people depending on the sector.

Only 22,541 tourists visited Bhutan from September 23, 2020 till January 18, 2023 of which 10,116 were international tourists and 12,425 Indian, against 341,292 tourists from January, 2019 till February 28, 2020 of which 77,488 were international tourists and 263,804, regional tourists. The regional tourists include tourist from India, Maldives and Bangladesh.

The sector saw tour operators and guides affected because of the dependency on tourism for their livelihoods. Many lost jobs or had to seek other alternative jobs for survivals.

A tour operator claimed that many guides are losing their hope because of limited number of tourists visiting the country. โ€œRecently, two guides from my company left for Australia because making a living as a guide here is really challenging,โ€ said the operator.

Tour guide Wangdi Tsheten from Haa saw a vast difference earlier and now. โ€œEarlier, 30 to 40 tourists would call me inquiring to visit Bhutan. But now, 90% (percent) of these potential tourists are diverted to Nepal. They said that Nepal is much cheaper destination to visit than Bhutan,โ€ he said.

He added, โ€œIn my case, my wife is working so, we did not face much problem, but some of my friends whose livelihood depended solely on this career are having difficult times, making their ends meet.โ€

Another tour guide Nima said, โ€œWith no source of income and little savings, I am struggling to pay rent. I requested the landlord for a waiver but in vain.โ€

Unable to find work and desperate to stay afloat, he took farming. He is now in his village growing crops. โ€œIt is a far cry from the income that I used to earn. But it is better than nothing,โ€ he added.

Sonam Tobgay, cultural tour guide lived a comfortable life in Paro before the COVID-19 pandemic. โ€œHad it not been for His Majestyโ€™s COVID-19 relief fund, many of us could have lost our lives,โ€ he said.

Sonam said, โ€œPrior to the pandemic, there was no dearth of work as tourists continued to pour into the country, dubbed as โ€œthe last Shangri-laโ€. Now I am finding it difficult to make a living as a guide. Thus, with the help of Desuups, I am going to start a small business.โ€

Like Sonam, Lodey from Wangdue Phodrang is another cultural tour guide whose life took a 90-degree turn when the pandemic hit. โ€œThe pandemic has affected badly. I havenโ€™t dealt with any western tourist after the re-opening of the borders. Earlier, even during dry seasons, we could get 1 to 2 groups of western tourists. It is really challenging to make a living now. The only thing I can do is pray to god,โ€ he said.

Sonam Tshewang from Punakha, another cultural tour guide helps his wife run her business. With no hope in tourism sector meanwhile, Sonam is scouting for another job.

Others like Kinley Penjor and Pema Tshoki have left being a tour guide for almost 2 years. Kinley Penjor says he is worried about his future. But for now, he is a Desuup.

More than 4100 guides were registered under Guide Management System (GMS) in 2019. As of now, only 1536 guides had cleared their readiness assessment.

โ€œThe number of guides under GMS has decreased over years. Earlier, there were 700 to 800 permanent guides. At the moment, most of them are jobless. Some are taxi drivers, some running restaurants, and others working at construction sites. More than 1200 guides are enrolled as desuups and I donโ€™t think they have cleared their readiness assessment,โ€ said Garab Dorji, Chairman, Guide Association of Bhutan (GAB).

The chairman added, โ€œTour guides are crying foul because their work has been affected by the pandemic, and when the time has come for recovering their losses, decreasing number of tourist visiting the country is adding another stumbling block to the work.โ€

The Tourism Levy Bill was founded on the principle of high value, low volume tourism and specifically relates to the Sustainable Development Fees which is being revised but itโ€™s also part of the overall government transformation.

โ€œOur tourism industry was due for a correction. In 2019, there were more than 4,000 registered tour operators, which is a high number for a small country like ours to support. Other small countries with similar sized tourism industries normally have less than 1,000 tour operators. Furthermore, there was a lack of consistency in the standards of the hotels, the services of our guides, and the overall quality of the experience we offered to guests. So, yes, the tourism transformation was necessary, and it has helped to improve the overall standards within our industry,โ€ said Carissa, Chief Marketing Officer, Department of Tourism (DoT).

Carissa said, โ€œWith the new SDF levy of USD 200 per person per night for visitors from all other countries except India, who must pay Ngultrum 1200 per person per day, visitors have continued to visit Bhutan, though the numbers are lower than before the pandemic. Despite the drop in number of visitors, 16,520 people have visited the country since the country reopened in September 2022, which is better than our forecast. Records with the Department of Immigration show that of the total arrivals, 8,273 were Indian tourists paying the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) Nu 1200, so far this year, with 3,431 guests paying USD 200. About 4,816 tourists visited paying the old SDF of USD 65 per night. We know that tourist numbers are low right now, however we are in the low season of tourism in Bhutan and the country reopened to tourism four and half months ago. It will take time for tourism to bounce back.โ€

She added that with the opening of tourism in late September 2022, the industry has generated a revenue of approximately USD 7.06M and Nu 46.68M (around USD 570,000) from the SDF. In 2019, the total earnings were USD 23.42M from SDF. At this rate, the SDF earnings after year one will be slightly lower or equal to the SDF earnings in 2019.

โ€œThe introduction and implementation of the Tourism Levy Bill 2022 was a shock to the industry. In the short term, the SDF will have an impact on the arrivals however, the numbers will certainly bounce back,โ€ she added.

Furthermore, she said, โ€œWe expect that arrivals from India, one of the previously key source markets of Bhutan, may decline by 50% in the short term but this too will recover. We are regularly in touch with Indian agents and they are very bullish about the potential of Indian outbound travel to Bhutan so, the future of the Bhutanese tourism remains very bright. The interest in Bhutan from international travel agents, press and guests remains very high, and the global travel trends are in our favor. There are amazing hotels and experiences in this country that position Bhutan on the top of many international travelersโ€™ wish lists.โ€

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