Today, and for the foreseeable future, tourism remains Bhutan’s most profitable and vibrant economic activity. It is the biggest employer, giving jobs and livelihood to every segment of Bhutanese society - cutting across all religion, gender, social standing, geological boundaries, level of skills, educated and uneducated, the aged and the young. Tourism also brings in the highest amount of foreign exchange - untied and without any interest bearing loans - estimated at about US$73 million annually, out of which close to US$21.00 million is net Royalty that goes into the national exchequer.
From its initial start sometime in 1974 when the tourist arrivals were a mere 287, it has now grown to over 133,000 arrivals in 2014. From a single tour operator in 1974, there are currently over a thousand companies that are engaged in tourism related businesses. This does not take into account the ancillary service providers that number in the thousands.
Since the past close to six decades of our planned development activities, tourism industry is the only industry that has grown from strength to strength. Over the years we have built up in-country capacity and capability to run this business without having to play second fiddle to outside forces. This success can be attributed to sound policies of the successive governments of the past that have remained focused on nurturing it with farsighted policy guidelines and through creation of enabling conditions and conducive atmosphere – within which to foster and develop, unhindered. This industry has now entered that phase in its evolution when it no longer needs or requires government intervention. It is a girl child who has been groomed into full womanhood and is now ready to breed a multitude of opportunities for a variety of economic activities.
Over the past many decades, donor countries led by India have been generous in pumping in hundreds of billions of Ngultrums in aid money, to help contribute to our nation building. Sadly, we have squandered most of it in activities that did not contribute to real growth - in economic terms. We spent all the aid money in social sectors such as building schools, hospitals, roads, mithun farms and lavish structures and Dzongs that we do not need, with the net result that today we have no manufacturing base of any kind that generate jobs or contribute to economic health and wealth creation. Instead, we have hydro-power projects that help us to be enslaved until the end of time.
Tourism industry has the potential to liberate Bhutan from the clutches of the monumental debt that is being accrued from debilitating projects such as hydropower and Dungsam Cement. Unfortunately, indications are that the industry is now headed for a disaster in the next one or two years - if we do not take stock of what we are doing, and make amends immediately.
A tourist destination that is the envy around the world - a holiday experience that used to be filled with distinctive cultural marvel and pristine natural beauty, is fast turning into a loathsome experience that the tourists are coming to detest and abhor.
I am talking of the ongoing ROAD-WIDENING activity that is about to cause irreparable damage to our reputation as a coveted tourist destination. The hurried implementation of this poorly planned and executed activity is almost as if it is being done to throttle the Tourism Council’s declaration of the year 2015 as the “Visit Bhutan Year”. The horror stories the tourists tell of their sufferings as a result of hours of being stranded on the road as a result of road closures at more than 5 locations is something that does not bode well for the tourism industry.
............... to be continued