Friday, August 7, 2015

Tourism Industry: The early warning signs of imminent disaster

It does not take a Nostradamus to predict that the recently initiated haphazard road widening work is going to cause irreparable damage to our tourism industry. But I am shocked by the alacrity with which the problem has already set into motion the wheel of doom.

It began with the recent landslide and flooding in Trongsa that caused severe damages in Trongsa town. People put the blame squarely on the road widening works.

A week back, three irate travelers driving towards Thimphu from Trongsa beat up a truck driver for hindering smooth flow of traffic. This was clearly a case of a malaise known as “road rage”. Irritated travelers stranded on the road for hours on end suffer this malaise that give rise to violent anger caused by the stress and frustration of having to drive under difficult conditions.

A little over a week back, I was sitting at the Ambient Café drinking tea when I overheard a conversation among four tourists sitting few tables diagonally to mine. They were an agitated lot. One could not believe that their journey from Bumthang to Thimphu took 17 hours. One of them felt that their tour operator was stupid to send them to Bumthang even while knowing that the roads were in terrible condition and would take them 17 hours to drive to Thimphu. One felt that they should sue the tour operator for mismanaging and spoiling their expensive holiday trip.

The above are clear signs that our tourism industry is headed for a disaster. There will be hundreds of incidences of road rage. Hundreds of landslides will occur over the coming years, as a result of digging into the fragile mountainside. Stretches of roads will slide down into the ravine and disappear - leaving travelers and tourists stranded on the road for hours and days. Essential supplies and travel will be disrupted. In the meantime, disgusted tourists will return home to spread the word. In the coming years, tourist arrivals will plummet.

Already, tour operators complain that bookings for this year is way down compared to earlier years - because of the Nepal earthquake disaster.

Happiness is a place” will cease to be our brand name slogan. Instead it will be etched on the tombstone - an epitaph to the demise of Bhutan’s tourism industry!

I suspect that flow of tourists to the Central and Eastern parts of the country will dwindle to a trickle. It does not seem like tourists in their right minds will want to travel to Bumthang and the East - over bumpy, muddy roads that go on for hundreds of kilometers. Quite rightly, no tour operator in his/her right mind should suggest it. The prospect of being stranded for hours on the road is not any body’s idea of holiday.

If tour operators are smart, they will avoid booking tours to Bumthang and the East. Even if they must, they should take their tourists by air to Bumthang and back. They should avoid planning their tours based on overland travel, or be prepared to face the wrath of their guests.

While in some parts the country the tourist infrastructure will remain underused, in places like Paro, Thimphu, Haa, Punakha and Wangdue the facilities will come under tremendous pressure. Phobjikha could still remain a tourist destination but it does not offer appropriate accommodation and, in any event, it does not have the numbers to accommodate the diversion from other destinations.

In all this, Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines could benefit - they should already anticipate increased air traffic to Bumthang airport and back. They ought to prepare for the influx. Boom time is inevitable - if the tourists will still come, despite the bad press.

No one seems to be able to explain why we need to widen our West-East highway. It is madness given that it imperils the only industry that can effectively counterbalance the economic disaster that is being caused by the hydro-power projects. In my opinion we do not need to widen our West-East highway. All that we need at this stage is to repave them and resurface them properly. If at all there is a need to widen the West-East highway, for whatever mysterious objectives, we must first improve the roads from West to South, South to South, East to South and South to Central. Once that is done, we can then redirect our tourist traffic through them.

The government cannot fail to understand that the West-Central-East national highway represents the backbone of our tourist traffic. Any impediment on this route will mean disaster for our tourism industry. There is a need to rethink on this issue, before it is too late.

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