Sunday, June 26, 2022

Tear Drop From Heaven

My frustrations knew no bound in the past over a month – talking and discussing and blogging on this matter relating to the soon-to-be-enacted “Tourism Levy Bill of Bhutan 2022”. I have spoken to industry players, hotel owners, guides, tour operators and friends - in Bhutan and abroad. Every passing day my heart has been sinking at the apparent futility of my endeavors that has been nothing short of blistering.

To be frank, I do not know why I am so bothered – whichever way the Bill goes, I will not be in the least bit impacted. Thus, this morning I decided I had enough taking on the world’s burden on my shoulders – I decided to go chasing birds – the feathered variety ofcourse.

…………. And what a bounty! I landed a “lifer” – a bird that I had never seen in my life before - let alone photograph it! The bird is called Tickell’s Thrush (Turdus unicolor).

Perhaps the Gods in heaven feel sorry for my ongoing angst. Perhaps they are rewarding me with a new bird – to bolster my spirit that has been down in the dumps.

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Ode To The Members Of The Economic & Finance Committee Of The National Assembly of Bhutan

For the first time in my life, I sat through the whole proceedings of the presentation of a Bill in the National Assembly – the Tourism Levy Bill of Bhutan 2022. I watched it on national TV on 20th June as well as day-before-yesterday, the 23rd of June, 2022.

For the record, the National Assembly tasked its Economic & Finance Committee to get an in-depth understanding of the issues relating to the proposed Tourism Levy Bill of Bhutan 2022. The 13 Members that make up the Committee met and listened to all the five sectorial agencies that make up the tourism stakeholders of Bhutan: ABTO, HRAB, HAB, GAB and BSTS.

The outstanding and admirable Committee Members of the National Assembly's Committee on Finance & Economics

Having been thoroughly briefed of the complexities of tourism business, today these 13 Committee Members qualify as the most educated, well-informed and most up-to-date among all other Bhutanese. No other individual or agency has the right to make this claim – because none cared to listen to the tourism industry’s side of the story.

And the depth of their understanding was evident in the presentation the Committee Chair made on 23rd June, 2022. The very substantive and eloquent way in which the Chair of the Committee - Honorable Kinga Penjor - presented his case on the floor of the National Assembly was sterling, to say the least. The expanse of his coverage of the subject, the pin-point precision with which he presented the many points that he touched upon, leaves me in no doubt the monumental amount of work the Committee Members would have been required to put in, within two day’s time that was allowed them. I cannot imagine that the Committee would have been able to make such a flawless and forceful presentation to the Members of the Lower House of Bhutan’s Parliament, without having to put in many hours of hard work and research.

And yet, at the end of so much passion and hard work, their recommendations were tossed out the window along with the bath water. That too by a lot who had not listened to even one line of what the industry stakeholders had to say. It is sad – but that is how the cookies crumple. There is no need to get emotional about it.

All things considered, we are not faulting anyone - we are fully aware that the government has the best interest of the country at heart. That is not in contest. Those of us who are apprehensive are so because we believe that the translation of those good intentions on the ground is, in our opinion, inappropriate and hasty. To be fair – we could be totally wrong – but our concerns are borne of the operational difficulties we foresee - as experienced players in the business of tourism – not the policy itself as we have made it very clear. For all we know, the policy may be just what the doctor ordered – that is something time will tell.

Most are of the view that the matter relating to the Tourism Levy Bill of Bhutan 2022 is water under the bride. I do not believe it – the hammer has been raised – but it hasn’t yet struck our heads. Until it does, I will keep up my hope.

For now, on behalf of the Members of Bhutan Sustainable Tourism Society (BSTS) and on behalf of Bhutan’s tourism stakeholders, I would like to record our admiration and appreciation to the thirteen Honorable Members of the Economic & Finance Committee of the National Assembly of Bhutan, for their commitment to the cause and their tireless work. Please know that you could not have done any better.

We would also like to record our gratitude to other Members of the National Assembly who also courageously attempted to alter the course of history. The pursuit of a cause matters - the outcome is obviously not in our hands.

I was hired by a Indonesian sporting magazine to cover the Shanghai Masters 2008 and Wimbledon 2009. I was asked to cover the French Open 2010 in Roland-Garros - but declined – just too much leg work.

During the Wimbledon 2009, I noticed that the Grass Courts are numbered from 1 to 19. Having covered all the courts, I counted only 18 Grass Courts. What happened to the 19th? The mystery was solved when I looked at the display board where the plays are listed. Court Number 13 was not listed. The Western world believe that the number 13 is ill-starred.

No Court Number 13 is listed

Closer to home, the officially accepted spelling of Chukha is “Chhukha” – with double “h”. The reason: the Bhutanese consider the number “6” as an inauspicious number! Thus Chhukha Dzongkhag Administration insists that the spelling of their Dzongkhag (District) should contain 7 alphabets.

Is it possible that despite so much hard work and wisdom behind their presentation the Economic & Finance Committee of the National Assembly of Bhutan could not succeed with their presentation – because their cumulative number stands at 13?

Friday, June 24, 2022

The Money Is Not Yet In The Government’s Pocket

As I have said many times before in this blog, the deal is not done until the cash is firmly in the pocket. The Lower House of the Parliament may have endorsed the Tourism Levy Bill of Bhutan 2022 yesterday morning - but the money is not yet in the Government’s pocket - far from it. According to the law, it has to be forwarded to the Upper House - the National Council - for their endorsement. However, the endorsement or otherwise by the National Council is inconsequential - because since this is a Money Bill the National Assembly can override the National Council - they can pooh-pooh their objections.
None support to the Bill was not considered

However, I believe that we may have been witness to an act of providence - I believe that during the process of endorsing the Tourism Levy Bill by the National Assembly yesterday, our protecting deities have shown their hands.

What transpired yesterday in the Lower House could well provide the Upper House with the ammunitions to contest the endorsement - NOT on grounds of the merit of the Bill itself – but on grounds of procedural lapse by the NA or its Speaker.

People would have noticed that the Tshogpoen (Speaker) called for the raising of hands  - only from those Members WHO SUPPORTED THE DEFERMENT OF THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE BILL. Thirteen hands went up. He never asked for the raising of hands from those Members who DID NOT SUPPORT.

How did the Speaker take it on himself to assume that the none-supporters may/could have outnumbered the supporters? Why was the raising of hands not called for – from those Members who did not support the recommendations of the Economic and Finance Committee? Why was the possible abstentions discounted? Is "NO" votes not needed to be registered?

Regardless, even if the NC does not object the obvious lapse of House procedure, there is still one final hurdle they have to overcome. The law is that while the endorsement by the NC is inconsequential where a Money Bill is concerned, the Bill still has to receive Royal Assent before it can pass into law.

Who can foretell what will emerge from the Throne Room? We will have to wait for that – before we start counting our marbles.

In closing, I want to covey one clear message:

The problem will not come from the tour operators – as long as the TCB has the imagination to accept certain realities of the business. The tour operators are amenable to supporting the government on its policy to increase the SDF although its introduction is terribly ill timed. The bigger trouble will come from the hotel sector who stands to be the most impacted by the policy. Their total investment in the business is far in excess of hundred billion Ngultrums.

Strangely, some hotel owners seem to have already decided on a way out of this looming disaster. When I asked a hotel owner friend to start digging a hole into the ground in which to hide from his creditors – he said no such thing is required.

He said he will just handover the hotel to an operator across the border. Problem solved!

Thursday, June 23, 2022

Tourism Industry’s Swan Song

Yesterday a little before 4PM, some Members of the Bhutan Sustainable Tourism Society (BSTS) had an opportunity to make a submission to some select Members of the Parliament. We were honored by the opportunity to make a last ditch pitch for understanding and patience.

We emphasized to the Honorable Members of the National Assembly’s Economic and Finance Committee that we are the only group that does not represent any sectorial interest – that we are a neutral body solely focused on sustainable development of tourism in this country.

The Honorable Members of the Parliaments's Economic & Finance Committee. Our group urged them to ensure that if history is being attempted to be re-written, the responsibility falls squarely on them - to attempt to craft a history with intergenerational benefit. This Committee has a weighty responsibility because they have heard all the wailings of the industry players and stakeholders.

Of over few thousand words said on the issue of the introduction of the Tourism Levy Bill of Bhutan 2022 – the central message we conveyed was that the tourism industry is not in opposition of the proposed Bill – but that it is ill-timed and its implementation is too hasty. 

We requested that the implementation of the Bill may be deferred by atleast a year and, if that is not possible, until the Parliament’s Winter Session, so that the industry has the time to make adjustments and tie-up loose ends spilling over from the past regime. It is our belief that this request is not unreasonable. In fact it will contribute to the seamless migration from the old to new ways of doing things.

For the history books - the group that attempted to write a good history. Recognizing that the day was historical, we posed for a photoshoot after the consultation with the Parliamentarians. It is not in our hands to alter history - but each of us has the responsibility to try and direct the course of history on the correct path.

Included in the photo are Members of the Handicraft Association of Bhutan (HAB) who were also present in the Meeting with the Parliamentarians. They too emphasised that the passage of the Bill will impact thousand of families and businesses engaged in the production and sale of handicrafts.

In conclusion the Chair of the Committee thanked us for our passionate engagement in the discourse, while agreeing that our request too was in line with those of other industry players and stakeholders, central to which was the request to defer the implementation of the Bill.

The BSTS Members delivered the tourism industry’s swan song yesterday evening – an occasion for the history books. Whichever way the Levy Bill goes, we stand indemnified that we tried our best, that we have done our citizen's duty – in the interest of the country and the people of Bhutan. 

Some tell us that it is a foregone conclusion – that the Bill will pass. But it has not yet been passed, and we are still hopeful that sanity would prevail. We will keep up our hopes until the end.

We have exhausted all avenues – we have spoken all there is to speak. We have, for the sake of posterity and so that history will bear witness, emphasized on the following:

1.  The industry players and stakeholders have not been consulted on a matter that will impact them
     the most.

2.  That by the nature of the business, the industry needs lead-time before new policies can come
      into play.

3.  That the industry is not in opposition to the proposed Bill but is in fact supportive of it.

4.  That the industry needs time to tie up loose ends from the past regime before it can migrate
      to a new way of doing things.

5.  That the government and the TCB are not ready for a seamless migration to a new way of doing business
      – that there will be massive operational difficulties as a consequence of moving too fast too soon.
      That it will disrupt the functioning of the industry.

6.  That not enough study has been done to justify such terrifying  about-turn in policy.

7.  That before the new policy is put in place – vigorous consultations is called for, which has not happened.

The government is unyielding that they have the right to the inscription of the industry’s epitaph. To be fair, there is absolutely no doubt that they can do so – the people of Bhutan have bestowed that right on them. But they have to bear in mind that they have not been empowered to make all the wrong decisions. It was with the belief that they have the potential to make all the right decisions, that the people of Bhutan have elected them into power. All the good work they have done so far during the pandemic will come to naught, if they cannot desist from being IMPATIENT over a matter that has the potential to imperil the country and the people of Bhutan.

Please exercise PATIENCE – there is too much at stake. Like Karma Tshering (PhD) asked in his Kuensel article:

Is there a crisis? ..... or are we creating a crisis?

For the record, he is the only person in the country who has a Doctoral Degree in Sustainable Tourism.

Apply science – not emotion!

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Hammering The Iron When It Is Dead Cold

The overpowering sense of feeling of alienation in our own country and within the sphere of our own calling – is a feeling that sickens us to the core. The tourism industry players may be short on intelligence and long on stupidity – but we have experience and institutional memory on our side. Some of us have been playing the field even before some of the eminent members of the decision making process were conceived.
!! Please !!

It is a pity that the government and its august Transformation Committee found it necessary and pertinent to sideline the industry players such as the ABTO, GAB, HAB, HRAB and BSTS, in their decision making process. To depart on the premise that the industry players and stakeholders cannot and will not contribute to a far more workable and transformative reform proposals is to believe that the tailor can do a better job than the carpenter.

Talking of which the government seems to be in confusion when they talk of the 720,000 Bhutanese people being the “stakeholders” of tourism or the tourism business. In our view they are beneficiaries of tourism – the principal stakeholders are the guides, hoteliers and the tour operators. And, these 720,000 go to make the sum total of Bhutan – the government is only one of the spokes in the wheel.

We are not in any confusion here – we agree and accept that the government has the mandate to try and do what best it can for the country and the people of Bhutan. However, it is good social and political grace to bring on board the people who will be impacted the most, by the decisions they make – whether good or bad. We are all fully aware and accept that at the end, the government can, and will do, exactly what it wishes to do – we are all resigned to that reality. But it is good politics to be seen to be democratic in its approach to governance. It is good politics to give us the sense that people matter, that stakeholders matter, in their scheme of things. Exclusionist policy is bad politics - at the end the dogs can continue to bark - the caravan will move nonetheless.

With the tabling of the proposed Tourism Levy Bill of Bhutan 2022 in the National Assembly, the death knell for the tourism industry has been sounded! From where we stand, everything about the proposal is wrong and ill-timed - it will imperil the tourism industry beyond repair.

The global tourism industry has been wounded and maimed by the pandemic and is groping on its knees. Across the world, governments are being imaginative and attempting to heal the wounds with progressive policies in an effort to resuscitate the industry that is panting for breathe. And what is being proposed in Bhutan? - we are attempting to hammer the iron when it is dead cold.

Bhutan’s tourism industry is not opposing the proposed transformations. We are merely asking the government to defer the implementation to a more appropriate time – it is common sense to introduce change when change will work.

The Parliamentarians who are going to be deliberating on the proposed reforms were given few hours to digest the proposals. For them to make informed decisions - they need time to understand the complexities that surround the tourism business and how it works. This is another reason why our request for the deferment of the implementation of the reforms should make sense to the government - it is not an unreasonable request. It is a request that is bound to result in a more educated decision on the part of the lawmakers.

Our efforts are collaborative - not obstructionist in nature.

Monday, June 20, 2022

The Tourism Industry Is Still In ICU

Discouraged by the news of the transformation of the tourism sector being suggested by the government, a friend who is currently domiciled abroad has put on hold his million dollars FDI resort project – he will wait for the dust to settle.

Post pandemic, Thailand has recorded just about 7% tourist arrivals - compared to 2019.

Bali is doing even worst.

Cost of air tickets have more than doubled – air tickets that could be had for US$300.00 before the pandemic is now quoted at US$750.00. NYC-BKK-NYC round trip cost has shot through the roof – it is now quoted at over US$2,000.00.

The government of Thailand deferred the imposition of US$9.00 fee – when some analysts cautioned the government that it would impact tourist arrivals. As opposed to that we are talking of imposing US$ 200.00 SDF.

During the PMO’s briefing on last Saturday, I submitted to the government that two of our tourism products should be considered for preferential treatment – birding and trekking. I was informed that no tourism product would be accorded special status. But the truth is that these two offerings are indeed SPECIAL – because they are the longest duration tour packages – anywhere from 14 days to 24 days. The imposition of US$200.00 SDF will effectively kill these two products.

Bhutan as a birding destination is so important to the global birdwatching community that the world's #3 birder came to Bhutan to record two of his life birds. Peter Kaestner, during his tenure as the Deputy Ambassador of the US based in New Delhi, came to Bhutan to see the White-bellied Heron and the Fulvous Parrotbill - two birds he had never seen in his life before. The Bhutanese Embassy in New Delhi and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Thimphu requested me to act as his guide. I did - and happily Peter was able to see the White-bellied Heron in Lekithang in Punakha on the first day and the Parrotbill on the second day - in Dochu-La.

The issue of few hundred hotels going out of business caused by the high SDF came up. It was opined that the construction of these hotels was purely a business decision. I countered that the proliferation of the hotels in the country came about because of the country’s enabling and conducive policies in place. When that situation is altered – the onus will be on government who does it - to provide alternative avenues for the hotels.

Yesterday a hotelier friend called me up to update him on the latest on the transformation policy of the government. I told him that we would know for sure today when the issue would be deliberated in the National Assembly. But I told him to start digging a hole in the ground in which to hide - just in case.

He said he will do no such thing – he said he would lock up the hotel and hand over the keys to the bank.

But yesterday evening a friend offered the view that according to him the biggest tragedy in the whole affair is Yeshey Dorji – I am the most concerned and make the most noise – and I don’t even have a tour operation license to my name!

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Bring Change – But Make It Consequential And Less Painful

Yesterday I attended an informal briefing by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) on the changes to tourism policy that are being proposed by the government. The Honorable Prime Minister was present, including the Director General of the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) and Dasho Kinley Dorji and two Committee Members of, what I am told - the Transformation Office – on the government side.

Other participants were from the social media.

The Meeting was not informed in what role or capacity Dasho Kinley Dorji was present in the gathering.

What was revealing for me is that the committee that is working on revolutionizing Bhutan’s tourism industry is called “Transformation” office. Things are now beginning to fall into place – the rumored changes that are proposed are becoming less incredulous.

The government is apparently working on total transformation of the tourism industrynot just reforming it. It now makes sense why there is complete about-face. The old tree is proposed to be uprooted and cast away – making way for the plantation of a new and robust sapling, in its place.

Alas! The government seems to fail to grasp that the plantation is being initiated during a period of severe drought!

For a democratic government, the process has not at all been democratic. At some point the government has to stop this top-down approach – they need to adopt governance through consensus building. Their sin is that they did not consult the industry players. If their idea fails, their only excuse will be that they did it with the interest of the country at heart – that their intensions were good and honorable.

The problem with good intensions is that its pathway is strewn with dead bodies.

His Excellency the Prime Minister honored me by inviting me to initiate the discussions.

I submitted that I speak on my own behalf and that of the Bhutan Sustainable Tourism Society (BSTS) – of which I am a Member. I submitted that the government has the right and the authority to bring in any and all changes as it sees fit. However, given the nature of tourism business, I pleaded with the government to defer the implementation of the proposed changes to a more appropriate time. The reasons I offered are that:

a.  Tourism business does not happen overnight – it is conducted over months and years. Negotiations and deals are closed many months before the travel date. Deals are negotiated based on standing rules and provisions. Unannounced changes and implementing them suddenly will cause chaos in the industry. Thus I urged the government to allow the industry to make course corrections and readjustments - by giving it enough time before the changes are enforced.

b.  The deferment of the implementation of the proposed changes will allow the tour operators and their foreign agents to stand-by and fulfill their commitments already made based on the standing rules. Even better, the deferment period from now to the time of implementation will allow us to test if the proposed changes and way of doing things are working and feasible. If not, we have the time and the opportunity to make changes and tweak the proposed system - so that finally we have a good working system in place.

Enforcing a new model of doing things to an ongoing business is a total bad idea - particularly given how tourism business is conducted.

I am all admiration for the DNT government - for their courage in dismantling a number of evils that had percolated into the system. Politicians have the reputation of playing to the masses - but the DNT has dared do things that are meaningful and courageous. However, at times it is necessary to confine courage and valor to the battlefields – we are not in a warlike situation. We are talking of sensible and good governance.

Differing the implementation of the proposed changes by few months will not cause any misery - it will in fact make the transition much more smoother with lesser casualty along the way. I am not opposing the changes – merely that its implementation should be consequential and less painful.

The government and the Parliamentarians have to bear in mind that the citizens believe that changes are proposed to improve things - not to cause disruption and death to an industry that has served the Bhutanese community for the past close to half a century.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Tourism Reforms: Need For Deferment Of Its Implementation To a More Appropriate Time

Today the tourism industry players and stakeholders are frantic - caused by the hearsay of the supposed tourism reforms being proposed by the government. Like I have always said - no deal is done until the cash is firmly in the pocket - thus whatever is being put out currently should be treated with a pinch of salt. It is not the real deal - the real deal will come after the deliberations in the National Assembly and the National Council and finally after obtaining Royal Assent, upon harmonious agreement between the two Houses. Unless the Tourism Reform Bill is considered an EMERGENCY or is designed to offset a CALAMITY that is about to befall the nation, this process of passing a Bill requires multiple Parliamentary sittings - it cannot happen in one sitting.

Laws bring order, not chaos

Some utterly incredible information are being put out in the marketplace - such as increasing the SDF to US$200.00 per person per night halt; doing away with the MDPR, hotels being allowed to do tour business, and the removal of the need to book tours through licensed tour operators etc. etc.

Of the 931 articles on this Blog, 56 of them – including this one, are on tourism - I have gone hoarse talking about it. Thus I do not intend to discuss the merits or demerits of the proposed reforms. I am told that a group comprising of experts and specialists on tourism and tourism business have worked on the proposed reforms that are being suggested - thus I am not qualified to offer a contrarian view to those of the experts and the specialists. I am sure that they would have thought of what is best for the country and the people of Bhutan. I am in no doubt that the experts and the specialists would be fully aware that when we do reopen tourism in this country - we would be doing so in an atmosphere of a global economy that has been maimed and devastated by the pandemic. Rightly, the industry’s reading is that tourist arrivals in the next 2 - 3 years would be very minimal - thus any policy change will have to keep this eventuality in focus.

Before I go on to the points I want to raise - I want to touch upon a disturbing view that was supposedly expressed during the TCB Council Meeting on 16th June, 2022. I am told that when questioned on why the industry players and stake holders were not consulted on the proposed reforms - the answer given was that there were too many conflicting views among the stakeholders. This is to suggest that resolving conflicts is to ignore the conflicts. From what I know, conflict resolution happens when you discuss the conflicts and work around them.

Coming to the point I want to raise before it is too late – I have only one:


That is all I ask - that the government and the lawmakers are welcome to introduce any reforms they wish - but to please be practical in the implementation of those contemplated reforms. For the record, Members of the BSTS (Bhutan Sustainable Tourism Society) had already submitted to the Chair of the TCB - that any change in policy should be implemented only after a year of its promulgation. The reasons are as follows:

Tourism business is not like a grocery business - that you up the shutters and start selling your potatoes and onions. Planning travel happens many months and even years before the actual travel. Like the Indian would say - it does not happen “Chat Maangni Patt Shadi”.

The Westerners are not like the Bhutanese - the last minute scramblers. They plan their travels way ahead of time – they save and allocate their travel budget many months or even years ahead. They buy their international air travel tickets many months in advance - because if they buy early - they get it cheaper. The Bhutanese tour operators start selling tours many months ahead of the actual travel date. This means that tours are sold, hotels booked, travel itinerary decided, airline seats reserved, guides allocated - many months in advance. Let me give you an example of how travel happens.

Stephen Frederick Jones of Sacramento, USA was 17 years old when he made first contact with Bhutan. That was on 29th April, 1965. He fell in love with Bhutan and swore that he would one day visit the country. He planned and saved for the next many years. Finally, on 12th October, 2017 he made it to Bhutan – after 52 years of planning and saving and pinning. When he arrived Bhutan as my guest, he was 69 years old. Since then his love for Bhutan grew even more – resulting in over US$40,000.00 donation of personal money - to do meaningful projects for the benefit of the Bhutanese people. His last donation was to the Bhutan Stroke Foundation this month – to help the organization be better equipped.

This is how tourism happens – no Chat Maangni Patt Shadi!. Also, the message here is clear – the benefit of tourism goes beyond the collection of SDF – the benefit of a contented tourist has long term benefit to the country – we should always remember this.

All large Bhutanese tour companies work through established foreign tour agents. These foreign agents work with the prospects many months ahead – decide everything in advance – including collection of advances for the tours booked and sold. Thus transections happen many months ahead. Therefore sudden changes in policy should not be implemented immediately – or it will impact the businesses already concluded on behalf of Bhutan by foreign tour agents. If we do there will be loss of face for the agents who have helped protect and further the brand BHUTAN. There may even be legal complications - for reneging on an understanding that has been reached at.

Most of the Bhutanese tour operators had remained hopeful that things would return to normal after the pandemic - based on that hope they have been renewing their licenses for the past two years - without a chetrum of business. Now suddenly they might get the sense that they have been mislead by the government.

Certain discussions may have been already initiated by tour operators - some may be on the verge of closing deals - based on the existing terms of engagement. Sudden and out of the blue changes will impact these discussions and business prospects. Tour operators cannot turn around and say sorry - we made a mistake. To protect the brand Bhutan, tour operators and their foreign agents need to be seen to be dependable partners or service providers - or the world will ridicule us as untrustworthy people. That will be terrible for brand Bhutan.

The government and all relevant agencies should ensure that business is not allowed to be disrupted by sudden changes in policy – given the nature of the business, industry players should be given sufficient time before new policies can come into effect.

Apparently some exiting players are managed out - some new ones are being ushered in. I understand that issue of visa and receipt of tour payments are being redirected to some other agencies – the old system is being done away with. All these are fine and OK – but don’t you think we need time for the new players and new systems to find synergy among each other? Don’t we need time to smoothen out the kinks and the initial hick ups that are bound to emerge under an untested system and method of doing business?

It is for all the above reasons that a deferment of the implementation of the reforms is practical - until such time that we are ready to migrate to a new business model.

I believe that there is no need to rush to our graveyards – we can do it in good time and with ease.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Why For Art Thou Q Yeshey?

Hi ………….. ,

LOL …. that is right …. To this day most Bhutanese in Bhutan know me as, and call me - “Q Yeshey”. And like you, most are intrigued – why “Q Yeshey”?.

"Q Yeshey" photographed atop one of the original World Trade Center buildings, New York in 1984. The photograph was taken by Ms. Sherlene Spingler - Bhutan's agent in New York for the supply of Bhutan's Gum Rosin - a resin extract from Chir Pine - to South Africa. Ofcourse the business never took off since the world had an embargo in place on the apartheid regime in South Africa and countries were forbidden to do business there.

In truth – the tag “Q Yeshey” is a tag of honor and accomplishment. The story begins in the mid-1980s.

I became entitled to a car quota in 1979 but I did not have the money to buy one. Then sometime during the middle of 1980, I got the bright idea of asking my uncle who loved me dearly – for a loan to buy my Toyota Corona car - all my friends were buying cars. The Bank of Bhutan was financing 50% of the car cost – the Toyota Corona was then priced at Nu.62,000.00 – so I needed to make a down payment of Nu.31,000.00.

My uncle asked; “So, if I do give you the loan, how do you hope to repay me?” He did not believe that I was in any position to repay him the loan.

I said; “I will repay you somehow”.

He said; “Bullshit you will repay me. Anyway – you can have the money – it is my gift to you - free”.

With Nu.31,000.00 firmly in my pocket, I went back to Phuentsholing STCB (State Trading Corporation of Bhutan – the in-country distributor of Toyota cars) office to make the down payment – only to find that the price of the car had gone up to Nu.68,000.00. I found myself short of Nu.3,000.00. This money I did not have.

I was in a fix. I spent sleepless nights worrying what to do with the money. I certainly did not want to spend it on something that it was not intended for. My uncle would be truly disappointed with me if I spent the money on something else - other than for the purchase of a car. I did not want that on my memory.

A bright idea struck - I decided I will use the money to start a business - what business did not bother me - I mean I did not have a clue. I travelled to Thimphu (those days I was based in Calcutta, India) and applied to my parent Ministry (Ministry of Trade, Industry and Forests) - for resignation. Quite predictably, the Ministry did not want to let me go - but I was adamant that either they release me or I walk out.

A compromise was reached: they would allow me to resign on the condition that I remain for six months beyond the date of resignation - on full salary. The reason was that Bhutan was negotiating trade routes and trade prospects with Bangladesh and I was a team member doing the ground work.

Mr. Richen Dorji who was then the Managing Director of Penden Cement Authority, Pugli heard that I was resigning. He flew to Calcutta to speak with me.

He said; “Yeshey – I understand you are resigning. Why don’t you join Penden Cement as my Deputy?”

I said; “No Thank You - I am not resigning because I am unhappy with my present job - I am resigning because I want to go into business”.

He asked; “Alright - what business are you going to do?”

I said; “No idea as of now - but I will think of something”.

He said; “OK - then why don’t you become our Cement Distributor for the State of Assam?”.

Now that idea appealed to me - so I accepted. When my six months over-stay with the government was done with, I started the cement distribution business which necessitated the opening of an office in Guwahati, Assam. I placed my good Indian friend as the head in the office. The business did so well that Penden Cement could not fulfill our offtake – the business we offered them far exceeded their daily production - it was quite a problem.

When I started business first thing I needed to do was get a business license and give a name to the business entity. Most business houses in Bhutan were either “Bhutan this …. Or Druk that ……”. Such run-of-the-mill names did not appeal to me - I wanted something different - something off-beat.

Thus I named my business entity “Q - Systems & Sales”.

My company and I were trail-blazers – “Q Yeshey” pioneered the IT trade in the country – I was one among three people in Bhutan who owned a computer those day - other two being His Majesty the Fourth King and His Excellency Lyonpo Ugyen Tshering – who bought one when he was our Ambassador in the UN in New York. I also personally installed the Apple Macintosh computer at the Samteling Palace.

Q Yeshey also pioneered electronic Desk Top Publishing business - even before the KUENSEL. I had a full set of desktop publishing equipment - computers, desktop off-set printer, desktop collating machine, desktop binding machine and six photocopiers. Q was capable of mass producing documents by the thousands in a day. Over time Q became the center for production for government documents and binding them into books. Q became famous with every ministry and departments not only in Thimphu but also across the country.

Q - Systems was the lone supplier of IT equipment such as computers, printers, photocopiers, electronic typewriters, word processors and photocopy papers. I supplied to every one in Bhutan. Q supplied and implemented the networking at the KUENSEL, under two separate grants from Denmark. I was even pivotal in securing the second DANIDA project for the Kuensel, when I convinced the Parliamentarians from Denmark why their project with the KUENSEL was meaningful in the development of media in Bhutan. Those days Q Yeshey was the darling of the international organizations based in Bhutan – such as UNDP, WHO and DANIDA. When Dr. Kan Tun’s (Head of WHO Bhutan Office) laptop crashed a day before his planned travel to Geneva to attend a WHO meeting, I sent him off on his journey - with the guarantee that a new laptop would be waiting for him in his hotel room in Geneva - before his arrival. He was amazed that the laptop indeed was waiting for him - duly delivered by DHL, by my suppliers in Singapore.

Over time, other players entered the computer trade – which suffocated me – Bhutan being a minuscule market. Thus I told the new entrants into the trade:

Guys – the field is all yours. I am out of here”.

Q Yeshey exited the crowded bazaar – but the prefix “Q” stuck - for life!.

Bye and take care.


Thursday, June 16, 2022

Some Good News For The Tourism Industry – Finally!

If the grapevine and the rumormongers are to be believed, two much-awaited events are going to happen:

The Tourism Council Meeting
The word is out that the Council Members of the Tourism Council of Bhutan is scheduled to hold its Council Meeting this evening - between 3 to 5 PM. The stakeholders of the country’s most impactful industry have been reduced to being Alices in Wonderland – clueless, rudderless and directionless. Hopefully, today’s Council Meeting – which had remained suspended for the past one year and three months!!! - will bring clarity and direction to where tourism in this country is headed.

The last Council Meeting was held sometime in March of 2021.

The slumbering Atsara likely to be resurrected soon

Discussion on Tourism Reforms
Whether true or false, it is rumored that the matter relating to tourism reforms would be tabled in the National Assembly for discussion – on 20th June, 2022. Times are hard - planting falsehood and misinformation in the social media has come into vogue in recent times. But if it is true – it is about time!! Reforms are good - and needed. Reforms bring about change and improvement - it brings greater clarity to the aims and aspirations of the industry.

And Bhutan’s tourism policy is in need of change – at a structural level, if it is to continue to provide the largest number of employment and deliver benefit to the largest number of the Bhutanese population.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

How Tsalumaphey is Historical

Consequent upon the posting of my blog article titled “Giving Environment a Helping Hand” on June 5, 2022 some readers called up wanting to know how Tsalumaphey was historically significant - thus this article.

The campsite at Tsalumaphey where Sir Ashley Eden and his entourage set up their camp on the night of 12th March, 1864 - on their way to Punakha. One of the two Cypress trees mentioned by Eden in his report still stands to this day.

Tsalumaphey is that patch of land where currently Thimphu’s sewerage treatment plant is located. I call it historical because the area is linked to the following:

Ashley Eden
He was the British India Government’s Special Envoy to Bhutan. His forced and failed mission to Bhutan during 1864 resulted in the great Dewnagiri war between Bhutan and British India during 1864-65, which Bhutan lost.

On his way to Punakha from Paro, Ashley Eden and his entourage night-halted at Tsalumaphey – on 12th March, 1864. In his report (EDEN: Political Missions to Bhutan, published in Calcutta in 1865), he writes as follows:

“We halted at Chalamafee, a large village situated where the two roads to Poonakh and Tassishujung meet. Our tents were pitched under two splendid cypress trees, the stem of one of which was six spans around.”

Settlement of Pahari Artisans from Kingdom of Kathmandu
In another section of the report, Ashley Eden writes as follows:

“The village was full of Bengallee slaves; many of them had been born in slavery; others were carried off in early youth, and were ignorant of their own homes. Every village we now came across had a number of Bengalle inhabitants, and gangs of them were to be found in the forests hewing wood and collecting pine leaves for manure for their owners.”

Although he identifies them as Bengallee, I suspect that they may well have been descendants of the Paharis from the Kingdom of Kathmandu who were brought in by Zhangdrung during his visit to Kathmandu in 1640. It is recorded that these Pahari artisans were settled in a village called Bekhu-Nang – an area that is adjacent to Tsalumaphey.

On the other hand, it is quite possible that they would have been Koch Beharis carried away by Bhutanese – to hammer coins. During his visit to Bhutan in 1837, Captain R. Boileau Pemberton of the British East India Company does mention of coins being hammered in Thimphu – pointing to the possibility that the mint may have been located somewhere in Tsalumaphey area.

Ancient Camp Site
An old man from Jemina, Thimphu tells me that Tsalumaphey was a much-used campsite in ancient times. He tells me that all the people traveling to Thimphu, Wangdue, Punakha, Paro, Haa, Pasakha etc. night-halted at Tsalumaphey. He tells me that at any given night, there would be over twenty families congregated at the place – on their way to different places. Thus, a covered and sheltered community kitchen with over 20 traditional hearths was established at the place - on a permanent basis - for the use of the ceaseless travelers night-halting at the place.

NOTE: I write "Kingdom of Kathmandu" because during the time under reference, Kathmandu was a separate country by itself - until Gorkha king Prithvi Narayan Shah consolidated the whole of Nepal into a nation state.

Zhabdrung Nawang Namgyel is supposed to have brought in Paharis from Gorkhaland to work on the religious artifacts for installation inside the Simtokha Dzong which was already completed. It is not known whether they settled down in the valley or got repatriated after their work was done.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Three Down, One To Go

One of the darkest periods in the history of the US is what was called the “Prohibition Era”. The Twenty-first Amendment of the US has the distinction of being the only constitutional amendment in American history that was passed to repeal another. The US prohibition era of the 1920s and 1930s encouraged the proliferation of deadly gangsters such as Al Capone, John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, “Babyface” Nelson, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, Ma Barker and the like. They stepped in to control and direct the business of prohibited alcohol in all the major cities of the US – even after the prohibition was repealed.

Bans, prohibitions and monopolies never work – infact they introduce crime and corruption and immorality into the society. In recent memory, we have/had four government sponsored prohibitions/bans/monopolies that have been responsible for the fall in morality of the Bhutanese people.

March of Bans & Prohibitions

1.  FIRST: Tourism business
Tourism was introduced on 1st December, 1971 but the business actually started only in 1974. It was a government monopoly until 1991. Beginning 1991, the monopoly was transferred to a private operator – the BTCL. The tourism business was de-monopolized when additional 33 licenses were issued by 1993. But the cap at 33 did not help.

Tour operation licenses were sold at premiums running into over 2 million a piece. Finally the cap was lifted, and thus, by 2001 tour operation licenses grew to 116. These licenses are now freely available, without restriction and special requirements.

One down – three to go.

2.  ALCOHOL: Bar License
The government segregated the alcohol trade as a separate and distinct business requiring a special license. Over time, issue of new bar licenses were suspended, creating a situation where bar licenses came to be sold for millions.

Beginning this month – kudos to the DNT government!! – the requirement of special bar licenses has been done away with. As of this month, all restaurants can sell alcohol.

Two down – two more to go.

3.  TOBACCO: Smoking and chewing of tobacco
The DPT government introduced Tobacco Control Act of Bhutan in 2010, effectively banning the cultivation, harvesting, production and sale of tobacco. This did not result in control or use or consumption of tobacco. On the contrary, it created black markets and illegal trade and caused people to be jailed and ostracized. Prices of cigarettes skyrocketed – selling at prices as high as Nu.1,000.00 per packet of 20 sticks.

Once again - kudos to the DNT government - the ban on tobacco was lifted last year – effectively eliminating illegal trade and lightening the burden on people’s purses.

Three down – one to go.

4.  DUTY FREE QUOTA: Duty free import for special class of people
One of the most immoral “entitlements” - the Vehicle Quota - was introduced sometime in the early 1970s - I am not very sure when exactly it was introduced - but it has to be early 1970s or even earlier, since I became entitled to it in 1979. Ofcourse I could not afford to buy a car then.

The award of this “entitlementturns public servants into state-sponsored black-marketers, and it costs the country huge. The reasons offered for this automatic award is totally flawed. The award is not merit-based - even a lifelong shammer is awarded it when he/she attains a certain grade. It is not an award that is extended to the poor and the financially incapable - it is awarded to the high salaried officials. It is not a reward for service to the nation - if it were, the top industrialists of the country who contribute millions by way of taxes should be rewarded - as a mark of gratitude for their contribution to nation building.

The quota beneficiaries sell the quota in the black market at premiums as high as Nu.2.50 million. The illegally generated fund goes on to finance the purchase of another car for the quota holders, thus while only one vehicle was expected to be imported - two get imported.

This quota system still stands  - so far no single person or government has exhibited the moral probity to attempt to dismantle this evil, thus exposing the true nature of the Bhutanese.

Be a champion - kill this evil!

Monday, June 6, 2022

Tourism Should Matter to Every Bhutanese

Bhutan’s tourism – and anything related to it is, to me, as it should be to all Bhutanese, a matter of great concern. Tourism provides the largest number of employment – its benefit is accrued to every segment of Bhutanese society – and every age group. It is a net gain industry where the remuneration flows in months and even years before service delivery - all interest free. It is a top grosser in terms of foreign exchange generation.

It is therefore reasonable that all of us worry when there are signs of decline and rot that is seeping in into the industry; in the manner how it is misguided and mismanaged.

I worry because the government has no record of doing the right thing.

Consider, for instance, the case of the wreckage of one of the “World’s Best Trekking Destinations”, and the ongoing destruction being caused to a birding destination famously known as the “Birding Capital of the World”.

Jumolhari Base Camp Trek is considered to be among the very best treks in the world. It is so beautifully stunning that in 2015 I hosted a group of high-end professional photographers from the USA. They were supposed to do the Lingzhi trek and exit through Dodena in Thimphu. But upon reaching Jumolhari Base camp – they refused to move any further. They said that they do not believe that there can be another place more beautiful than the Base Camp. They spent six nights at Jangothang and returned without doing the rest of the planned trek. And look at what the government did to the trail:

The famous Jumolhari Base Camp Trek trail completely buried under felled trees and branches. Austrian government's aid money was used to destroy the environment although it was provided precisely to save it.

Trekkers should not be made to pay thousands of dollars to trek under such dangerously unsafe surroundings.

The RGoB used Austrian government aid money to destroy the trail and cause irreparable damage to the environment. A reader of my blog - Michal Thoma - sent me a link to the Austrian Development Agency (ADA) website where it is clearly stated that the RGoB would use the aid money for:

“……. construction of two mini hydropower plants, one in Soe (50KW) and one in Lingzhi (100KW) .…."

The Austrian government gave the money for the express purpose of building two mini hydropower plants – one each in Soe and Lingzhi villages, so that we can avoid stringing of ugly power lines and destroying the already scanty forest in the area. We did exactly what we were expected to avoid - people around the world were heart broken by the mindless act – so much so that some one from Australia even volunteered to do fund raising to relocate the power lines.

The bird-rich areas of Sengore, Yongkala and Lemithang in Mongar in the East of the country are known among the global birding community as the “Birding Capital of the World”. Some visiting birders have recorded close to two hundred bird specie sightings in a single day – a stunning record by any standard.

Sadly, yet again, on the pretext of widening the road, the continuous stretch of bird habitat in these areas are being vandalized mindlessly. We have already written three times to the government to be mindful of the destruction being caused to the bird habitat. But the government remains inattentive to the industry’s request. Clearly this birding destination will, over time, cease to exist.

There is talk that the government is going to electrify some villages in the Sombekha areas of Haa. Once again we fear that the government will mindlessly destroy the beautiful Tego-La areas that is gaining popularity among the tourists - as a spot for nature tourism. Is it likely that yet again the Jumolhari trail disaster will be repeated in Tego-La areas?