Recently in a WhatsApp group chat a number of Bhutanese tour operators were ecstatic that Bhutan beat Costa Rica hands down as the better travel destination - in an Internet poll set up by the Lonely Planet. I thought over it for a moment and realized that the Bhutanese tour operators’ gloating over the result had nothing to do with a sense of achievement - it had to be an expression of a sense of patriotism. After all, Bhutan has been among the top travel destinations for the past many years.
If you ask me, quite frankly, getting to the top can also be accidental. All of us have to be frank with ourselves and admit truthfully whether we have worked hard enough to get there.
But what will not be accidental is BEING ABLE TO CONSISTENTLY MAINTAIN THE TOP POSITION. Now this requires genuine hard work - to consistently remain at the top. No lucky accidents can keep us at the top.
Unfortunately a season of confusion is upon us. The oft-repeated myopia that is the government’s professed “Flagship” programs has become a dangerously fatal distraction for the Tourism Council of Bhutan. In its chase for the cows in the wild, it is loosing focus on the cash cows that sit by its side - calmly churning out milk and butter.
The tourism sector has generated US$85.41 million in tourist revenue, in 2018 out of which US$26.29 million is direct revenue firmly in the government’s pocket. And yet, I am told that the government won’t allow TCB to appoint additional inspectors to help fatten the cash cow in hand. The TCB has few dozen rules and regulations to improve quality in service delivery in the tourism sector - but it has no manpower to help it regulate and enforce the rules. A regulatory authority that regulates the tourism activity in the whole of the country does not even have 5 inspectors to monitor, inspect and enforce regulations. Is this how we are going to take tourism to the top?
Incidences of guides being underpaid and ill-treated have been reported. Hoteliers have for years accused tour operators of none-payment. Tour operators have countered that hoteliers are often unprofessional in heir dealings with them. Tourists have complained of poor quality meals being served to them. I have personally seen a guide so thoroughly drugged out of his mind that he remembered that he was guiding a group for a Tsechu in Bumthang but he could not tell me which Tsechu it was that his group was supposed to attend. I have seen guides not wearing their badges, even when the rules explicitly require them to do so, when guiding tourists.
There are enough rules and regulations to remedy all of the above problems, and more. But through lack of monitoring, inspection, regulation and enforcement, the problems have persisted year after year. The government needs to empower the TCB with adequate number of inspectors to regulate and enforce the rules. The TCB overseas Bhutan's most important industry - it needs the teeth and muscle to keep the industry on track. It needs to be equipped with the most basic tools to make it effective.
The TCB recently introduced drug test for the tourist guides. This is a small but very important move towards disciplining the most vital component in the tourism service chain - the guides. The guides’ role in the improvement of our tourism industry has to be recognized for what it is - critical. The guide is the face and soul of Bhutan’s tourism industry. Let us honor them but let us also keep them honest. Those who fall by the wayside - well, RIP.