Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Thimphu City's Charming New Bus Stop

In the last decade, exterior designs of our buildings and other structures - both public as well as private - have seen subtle but marked departure from the traditional architectural design that use to be replicated in every new house construction. Houses constructed using traditional building materials and following strict traditional design guidelines of the old look beautiful, in addition to being aesthetically charming and visually pleasing. However, over time, modern architects and designers began to marry the old with the new - most often producing garish monstrosities that neither appeal nor contribute to the overall aesthetics of the surrounding.

Modern towns such as Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Wangdue and Mongaar are filled with these grotesque structures that attempt to retain the beauty and appeal of the traditional Bhutanese design, but fail miserably. And yet, we have to accept that in the times that we now live in, traditional method of building and design is no longer efficient, nor economical.

Although I am not an architect, I have realized that the beauty and the charm of our traditional houses and structures can be attributed to one principal factor: SYMMETRY! I noticed that in order to maintain symmetry, our traditional structures grow broader, as they grow taller. There seems to be some unwritten rule that is applied that ensures symmetry (Bhutanese builders use no drawings to construct houses!). This was OK during times of plenty. However we are now at a time when the only way to grow is vertically - one is limited by lack of space to grow horizontally, thereby unable to maintain symmetry. Thus modern Bhutanese buildings are a far cry from the traditional ones. For an understanding of what I am talking about, take a look at the following structure:

Times have changed - you cannot imagine how radically! Take for instance the rule that requires that only a person with a degree in architecture - regardless of his age or experience - can design and draw building plans. A master builder that has built the most beautiful Dzongs and Lhakhangs are no longer qualified to design structures, according to the new rules of construction!!! That is the most ridiculous thing and yet, there is merit in the rules. However, if that is true, then it is also true that the traditional method of building is no longer efficient or structurally or aesthetically sound. Sadly, the rules still state that the exterior appearance must follow traditional Bhutanese design. That is precisely why we have such garish looking buildings whose only qualification to traditional Bhutanese design is the Bo and Phana and painting of gargantuan Phalluses on the walls.

There is a need to re-look at our design rules so that our building look much better than they do now - atleast in the urban centers.

 Beautiful traditional structures that are charming and pretty

This brings me to the recently inaugurated Thimphu Bus Stop under the UNDP funding. I loved the design from the time the tubular frames were transported to the site - even before they were hoisted for installation. I visited the construction site many times - as the construction and the installation progressed.

 Thimphu's charming new Bus Stop - utilitarian, slim, efficient and sexy

The design is modern, utilitarian, slim and attractive and, above all, spacious. Imagine a clunky and obtrusive traditional structure in its place. The construction material is also durable and long lasting and element proof. I also like the fact that it uses tubular poles rather than MS angles. The space management is great. I visited it a number of times to see how accommodative the place was. I like the square sitting arrangements that in my thinking can hold 16 persons each. The seat top made of thick hardwood is a thoughtful choice. Even more, I like the fact that there are two dustbins and NO SMOKING signboard so that people know they are not allowed to smoke. It even has a CCTV although I am not sure if it is in service.

Ofcourse there are some visible flaws to the structure. For one, the roof is too small and needs to be much, much wider than it is now. The other thing is that I get the feeling that the gradient of the roof slope should be more. I am not sure that in times of heavy snow, the roof can withstand the weight. I also think that they should have removed or relocated the overhead electric wires that run over the roof of the Bus Stop - that could pose a danger. Other than that, the structure is great looking and sexy. Unfortunately, given the space constraints, I know that not all similar Bus Stops due to be installed in other parts of the city will be as spacious as this one.

However, the thing I want to talk about is not so much about the structure as much as the fact that we may be putting the cart before the horse. I hear that more than a hundred Bus Stops will be built around Thimphu, with funding from the World Bank. In my opinion - that can wait. What we need before the Bus Stops is: more comfortable buses and expanded network of bus routes and better paving of the existing roads.

I think the World Bank project should start with acquiring more buses while simultaneously building more excess points and repairing the existing network of roads in Thimphu so that the commuters have an enjoyable experience. That should encourage larger number of people to consider taking the bus, as an alternate means of commuting. Once the enabling conditions are put in place for a joyous bus ride, the Bus Stops can follow.

The World Bank project is essential and timely - but I think the sequence of project implementation needs rethinking.

My apologies - I am told that the construction of the City Bus Stop above was funded by the UNDP. Those that will follow will be funded by the World Bank.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Save The White-bellied Herons

The last letter written by the famed ornithologist and heron expert - Dr. Heinz Hafner - mentor to a generation of heron biologists and conservationists around the world - is said to have mentioned that the “highlight of his life was the discovery of a White-bellied Heron (WBH) nest”. There has never been a report of the sighting of the bird’s nest, since 1929 - leading Dr. Heinz to believe that the WBH was bound for extinction.

Then, nearly three-fourths of a century since its last sighting, the world became aware of the discovery of a White-bellied Heron nest in Kamechhu, Wangduephodrang, Bhutan in May of 2003.

Five months later, in the same year, in October of 2003, Dr. Heinz Hafner passed away at his home in the Camargue, France - happy in the knowledge that the world's rarest of the Herons had a chance at survival.

I wrote the following article for the KUENSEL (published: 26.12.2015) - to honor the late Dr. Heinz Hafner, and to celebrate the recognition of Bhutan’s leadership position in the bird’s conservation and protection, during the recently concluded international workshop on the Conservation of the White-bellied Herons.

Early this month (1st - 4th December, 2015), Punakha saw the convergence of close to 70 participants - all with interest in conservation and environment - to an international workshop held at Drupchhu Resort, Punakha. First of its kind in Bhutan, the workshop discussed the conservation of the critically endangered White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis). All the countries identified as the birds range were represented: Bhutan, China, India and Myanmar. Although pre-2000 records show that the birds’ range included Nepal and Bangladesh, these countries were not represented, presumably because the birds are now extinct in those countries.

The workshop was a collaborative effort between the Royal Government of Bhutan and the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN). In addition to representatives from the range states, the workshop saw participation from the following national and international organizations:

Asian Species Action Partnership, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, College of Natural Resources, Department of Forests & Park Services, Druk Green Power Corporation, International Crane Foundation, International Rivers, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN/SSC/SCPSC), Namdapha Tiger Reserve, Nature’s Foster, Punatsangchhu Hydropower Project Authority - I, Royal Society for Protection of Nature, Synchronicity Earth, Wildlife Institute of India, Wildlife Conservation Society, WWF-Bhutan, Ugyen Wangchuck Institute of Conservation & Environment and Zoological Survey of India.

The Punakha workshop was a follow up to the first such workshop held last year, at the Hotel Brahmaputra Ashok, Guwahati, India (2nd - 4th December, 2014) when a Working Group for Conservation of White-bellied Heron was established.

White-bellied Heron
(Ardea insignis)
The White-bellied Heron is the world’s rarest heron and one of the most threatened birds that is listed as “Critically Endangered” in the IUCN Red List. As of 2014, its occurrence was reported from only three countries - Bhutan, India and Myanmar. In August of 2014, a juvenile WBH was captured on the east side of Nujiang River (Salween) in Gaoligong Mountains National Nature Reserve, Yunnan Province, China. However, the bird died within days at the Yunnan Wild Zoo. This juvenile WBH was the first confirmed sighting of the species in China since 1938. Although there have been more reports of the bird’s sightings in other regions of China, particularly Hubei Province, Central China, none of the reports have yet been confirmed.

Although the world population of the WBH was earlier stated as anywhere between 50 - 200, the Punakha workshop determined that the confirmed population is only 60, distributed among the following rage countries.

Confirmed global WBH population

Even while it is nearing extinction, knowledge of these birds is poor, and disparate at best. Thus, the Punakha workshop, and the one that preceded it in India, will hopefully help bring coordinated efforts towards its protection and conservation, among the range countries.

White-bellied Heron and Bhutan
As of 2015, Bhutan has recorded the highest number of WBH’s in the world - at 28 individuals. The birds’ primary habitats are the Punatsangchhu and Mangdechhu river basins.

His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck reported the first confirmed sighting of the White-bellied Heron in Punakha sometime during 1974. However, going by the motifs woven into our ancient textile called the Chagsipangkhep, it is safe to assume that the birds existed in Bhutan - in larger numbers in the distant past.

The motif of a large bird woven into the Chagsipangkhep has a striking resemblance to the WBH

Bhutan’s leadership in WBH conservation
Bhutan leads the world - both in confirmed numbers, as well as in efforts towards its conservation and protection. The Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN) started their systematic field investigation and ecological study of the birds in 2003. Under the guidance of Peter Frederick, PhD, Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, University of Florida, RSPN’s research team of Rebecca Pradhan and late Tshewang Norbu published the world’s first scientific research paper titled “The Critically Endangered White-bellied Heron” in 2011. Bhutan also became the first country in the world to attempt captive breeding of the WBH - successfully hatching a chick that was later reintroduced to the wild.

History of Bhutan’s WBH conservation efforts
Dr. George Archibald, Co-founder of the International Crane Foundation visited Bhutan in 2002 along with the late Ms Ellie Schiller, a professional fisheries biologist and Head of Felburn Foundation, USA - an organization dedicated to preserving nature. During a trip along the Mochhu, their guide Hishey Tshering of Bhutan Birding & Heritage Travels pointed out a large bird to Ellie, explaining to her that the bird was among the world’s rarest birds, called the White-bellied Heron. Ms Ellie Schiller took a picture of the bird through the eyepiece of Hishey’s spotting scope. The film roll was sent to Bangkok through Druk Air’s Captain Tenzing Tshering who developed the film and brought back the prints to be handed over to Ellie who was still in Bhutan. She loved the bird and offered Hishey Tshering the necessary funding for the study and conservation of the WBH. Hishey Tshering declined the offer - citing inadequate knowledge and expertise. Instead he suggested that the funding be channeled to the RSPN with the condition that Tshewang Norbu, a jobless aspiring birding guide be attached to the project. Consequently, Felburn Foundation, in partnership with the WWF-Bhutan and the International Crane Foundation became the principal supporter that funded the RSPN’s concerted efforts to study and conserve the WBH, beginning 2003. Tshewang Norbu died in a vehicle accident few years back.

The WWF-Bhutan and Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation (BTFEC) are other major donors that fund the RSPN’s conservation efforts.

In partial fulfillment of their corporate-environmental responsibility, the Punatsangchhu Hydropower Project Authority provided funding amounting to Nu.2.00 million. The RSPN used the money to embark on the first-ever pilot project of captive breeding of the bird. Technical assistance for the project was provided by the San Diego Zoo, USA.

Threats to the White-bellied Herons 
There are a number of threats to the WBH - principal among them are habitat loss, impacts of climate change and hydropower development and activities related to it. In Bhutan particularly, it is significant that the country’s largest hydropower projects are located in the middle of the WBH’s most populous habitat.

Rebecca Pradhan at the RSPN says that her records show that they have so far sighted over three dozen chicks since the start of their study of the birds. Regardless, their adult population has not seen any significant increase over the years. She thinks that predation could be another threat to the healthy growth of the bird’s population.

Mitigating the challenge of possible extinction 
There is a real threat that the birds may disappear from its local range. Thus, the RSPN is working on an ambitious project for the bird’s captive breeding. A detailed proposal is under preparation, to start a captive breeding center at Basochhu, Tsirang - so that the birds can be introduced to other suitable sites around the country - both to propagate the numbers as well as to improve diversity in the gene pool. The Punatsangchhu Hydropower Project Authority has indicated that they would provide the funding to start this important conservation initiative.

Photographing the WBH 
The photographs that appear in this article is the culmination of fours years of dogged pursuit of the birds - year after year - from Phochhu/Mochhu in the West; to Basochhu/Changchey in the South and Berti in Central part of the country. Finally, I managed to photograph these rare birds in Rurichhu, Wangdue. My photographs of the WBH are featured in the Guinness Book of World Records as well as the Archive in the UK - the images are among the rarest in the world.

An adult WBH keeping watch over the nest

One parent keeps watch over the nest while he/she waits for the other to return with food

A five weeks old WBH chick in the nest at Rurichu, Wangdue

A WBH chick preening - sign that it is now ready to learn to fly

Responsibility and leadership 
The Punakha workshop has established that Bhutan is the country that has the highest number of these near-extinct birds. This recognition is an endorsement of the pristine condition of our environment as well as the re-validation of our standing as the front-runner in environmental conservation. However, this honor comes with responsibility.

Bhutan’s leadership position and pioneering work in the study and conservation of the WBH is undisputed. We are years ahead of other range countries in the knowledge base of the birds’ biology, ecology, habitat and its known and perceived threats. Therefore, it is now our responsibility to ensure that the birds not only survive, but multiply in the coming decades.

To allow the bird’s population to decline would be a national shame.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Of Coins & Postage Stamps

For those of you who are interested in numismatics, check the following out:

Bhutan is not known for its minted legal tender. However, among the world of philatelists, our postage stamps have always been ranked among the very best.

Only a few perhaps know that at one point in our history, proceeds from the sale of our unique postage stamps accounted for the highest foreign exchange earning. Our postage stamps were so famous that it used to be said that millions of dollars worth of fakes - rather unauthorized stamps - were printed in the Bahamas and sold to collectors around the world.

Today Bhutan is known for its GNH - those days Bhutan use to be known as the country with the most beautiful postage stamps. They were our goodwill ambassadors!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

New Throm To Construct Housing for Kholongchu Staff

So … it is finally happening! I offer my congratulations to the government for making this happen.

It is a small step for the Kholong Chhu project but a monumental leap for the country. We have miles and miles to go before we arrive at a point when we can begin to say and hope that the hydro-power projects hold any meaning for Bhutan and the communities around where the projects are happening. For now, I am happy that the initial steps have been taken; I hope that there will come a day when Bhutan can claim that the projects truly belong to us.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

My Dad and His Thoughts

I am currently out of the country and, therefore, immune to the waggeries of the madness that seems to have overtaken the country. Thus, while I am waiting to have my first meeting of the trip with my designers tomorrow, I have time in hand to introspect and think of more pleasant things to write about. One thought comes to my mind: my old man. I have to visit him soon upon my return.

Every year, I make atleast three trips to my village home in Tingtingbi where my 85 years old dad still lives and howls his daily prayers at the top of his voice, as if the Gods in heaven were deaf. These trips are either to attend the annual Chotpa, to shoot birds or simply to re-bond with the old man who, in his twilight years, is turning out to be more chirpy and humorous than he ever was in his younger days. It is perhaps an unconscious attempt to let go of life and live out the remainder of his time in this world with an air of joviality and cheerfulness. Good for him - because unlike most his age who tend to become greedier and cantankerous as they approach their final days, my old man is learning to ease up and gracefully submit to the inevitable. These days I notice that he does not even ask me why I am home - for him it is enough that I am around - reason does not seem to be important.

Most times I invite him to accompany me on my search for the birds. Once in a while he would accept and come along for the ride that is most often very early in the morning and last a few hours. He would sit quietly besides me on the front seat because he does not want to distract me. Sometimes, he would see a bird or two that he would point out to me.

During one such trip he suddenly asked me:

“Yeshey why do you shoot the same bird so many times? Why do you need so many photos of the same bird? I have seen you shoot the same bird over and over and over again”.

I told him:

“Dad, that is because the bird may be the same but everything else is different. The perch is different, the way the bird is sitting is different, the lighting condition and its position is different, the way the bird’s tail is raised is different; the twinkle in the eyes of the bird is different; the posture is different. It may be preening, it may be singing, it may be flapping its wings, it may be hovering, it may be dancing; it may be pecking. The same bird can be shot in a million different ways and each of the frames will be unique and different. Thus, for me it is not the same. Every frame I capture will be different from the last - so I keep shooting them over and over and over again".

Then one time he said something that I had never thought about before. He said:

“You must be the only businessman in this country who does not have to pay for his merchandise. All the birds, the trees, the mountains, the lakes, people, dzongs, monasteries, festivals, rivers and valleys, the green forests - they are all free for you. You simply pick and choose and photograph them and sell them to make money."

That is rather over simplification of things but a small part of what he said is true. Regardless, his jaw drops when I tell him that one of the three camera bodies that I carry around cost me - just the body without the lens - Nu.500,000.00++.

He then grumbles that I am being terribly wasteful :)-

Friday, December 4, 2015

Redirect Technological Development on the GNH Path

Recently I met, what I consider an unusual delegate, to the recently concluded GNH Convention in Paro. I say “unusual” because this person works for the world’s premier technology company that touches practically every aspect of our lives - whether awake or asleep.

In my view technology companies and what they put out in the market influence our lives in the most fundamental ways. Thus, if GNH fails, technology must take part of the blame for its undoing. That is what I told him when we had some discussion on the subject of GNH. The discussion continues over e-mail. The last e-mail I wrote to him reads as follows:


Hi ………,

Thank you for your two mails … I apologize for the delay in responding to them since I was out of town and then got really busy upon return.

Bhutan is just too insignificant - considered from any point of view: we simply cannot make a difference, neither economically, technologically - in any way. But despite that, even considering that 90% of the world population probably does not know the existence of Bhutan and even if they did - they wouldn’t know where we are, Bhutan does arouse some interest among world leaders and thinkers and policy makers – I think primarily because of our GNH philosophy and may be because of our leadership in environmental conservation. Both of these, in my personal opinion, are unlikely to be sustainable over the long haul but for the moment - it draws world attention to a minuscule country that is a none-player. So I agree with you - there must be something that we are doing right - that we can generate so much interest that a technology person working for a company that is at the forefront of technology that practically directs human behavior, should be interested enough to come to Bhutan and try and decipher the abstract that is GNH.

Your thoughts are great that Bhutan should chose and adapt technology that is appropriate in terms of GNH that we propagate. However, do you truly believe that is possible? You as a technologist should know more than I do that to a large extent technology and its application determines what we understand by happiness - it treats our illnesses, it causes our diseases; it influences the way we interact with friends and family; it reduces distances and yet keeps us far apart.

As you may remember, I had expressed the view that GNH is unlikely to work until we completely dismantle the present economic order - how and what we produce, how we consume, how we transport, how we market – alter the very objective behind all our economic activities. But this is an impossibility – because the human race has evolved way beyond the point where we have the option to do things differently. No single nation can perform singly. No single nation can hope to do things differently and as long as that is the reality, GNH will be a tough deal to deliver. That is evident by the fact that after so many years, we are still undecided on the true path to realization of GNH. Paradoxically, successive studies show that he who is affluent is a happier man!

As I told you, I believe that the loss of human values and other social ills can be, to some extent, attributed to the emergence of technology. Technology now directs our social habits, the way we perceive efficiency, affluence, the way we conduct our love affairs - it defines us. Consider for instance the mobile phone - it was designed for ease of communication but advancement in technology has turned this device into some thing that impedes human-to-human interaction - it drives a wedge that distances a human being from the other. We are a nervous wreck if our computer or the Internet should fail.

Thus to me it seems like people like you who are at the forefront of technology must work towards redefining the fundamentals of your design approach. I think you can start by steering the direction of technological development towards a more useful path – the GNH path - that which will enrich human society in better ways than it is doing now.

The technological alternatives that you talk about being more appropriate for Bhutan is something way beyond me :) For a person that started the technology revolution in Bhutan - I now shun it to the extent that I refuse to be on Facebook, Viber, Tweeter etc. It is not deliberate but instinctive.

You have some great suggestions - perhaps you should talk to our government about them. They are certainly worth pondering over. May be you should come back next year for the GHN Conference for a longer duration and present your ideas to the appropriate authorities.

Bye and take care


The Illegal Shingkhar-Gorgan Road, Yet Again

In a world that is beset by climate change related problems, Bhutan is projected as a shining star of environmental conservation. Bhutan has the reputation of being the most “carbon negative” country in the world.

A recent glowing report by the Guardian says:

“The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan has made the world’s most far-reaching climate promise to the Paris climate summit …."

It further goes on to say:

“Bhutan, which tests all policies and projects against a Gross National Happiness (GNH) index ……"

High praises indeed that make you proud, as a Bhutanese. Unfortunately, hidden away from the gloss and the glitter, something sinister has been in the works for the past few years - construction of the Shingkhar-Gorgan road which breaks all the rules in the book. It is an environmentally disastrous project that was proposed, and stopped, by the erstwhile DPT government.

The construction of this road breaks all the rules in place. In fact, given the rules in place, its construction is illegal. NEC and the Wildlife Conservation Division has repeatedly denied environmental clearance for this project because of the impact it would have on the environment and because it will destroy one of the most important habitats of the critically endangered Royal Bengal Tiger.

It is not a healthy sign when a citizen finds the need to oppose almost every move that the lawmakers propose. It is really tiresome. I am not going to say much on this issue - I am plain tired of making so much noise. I have already written close to 10 article on this issue - under the lebel “environment”.

The situation has not changed in any way - from the time the road was first proposed. The DPR and the EIA cannot be any different from how it was presented earlier. The rules have not been changed that would now allow the road to be constructed. Thus I am going to leave it to the agencies responsible - NEC and the WCD - to do their duties, as they must, as the custodians of the law.

Bhutan has to begin to be serious about the promises it makes. Or face the danger of being ridiculed.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

In the House of Gods, There is Madness But Not Complete Failure

I am happy to see sense finally prevail among the National Council Members. The NC is now no longer talking of lifting the Minimum Daily Tariff – they are talking of a revision in the tariff.

Thank God for that!

“The NC’s Economic Affairs Committee Chairperson, Pema Tenzin also said they are changing their stance from their earlier recommendation. The Committee had earlier recommended maintaining the royalty, which is US$ 65 per night, and freeing up the rest of the tariff so that the market can decide depending on the values and experiences."

Read the full report here:

and the Kuensel's report here:

Now I hope that the Cabinet will see that revision of the tariff at this point in time would be ill-advised. They would understand that their road-widening initiative is already causing a substantial dip in tourist arrivals. It will only get worst in the coming years - until the road conditions improve. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Bhutanese Tourism Industry Under Attack: VII

I am truly disgusted that there are people in this country who can contemplate doing away with our very successful Minimum Daily Tariff tourism policy that has seen the industry grow into the most vital and successful. Rightfully, it should be the hydro-power sector that must take the coveted place of being the first and the brightest. Unfortunately, I suspect that it has undergone a complete shift it its long term objectives.

I am not a tour operator but I am drawn into the business once in a while since I am asked to host some friends of friends abroad who visit Bhutan. Thus I had the opportunity to understand the industry from close quarters.

In my earlier articles I have covered most of the topics related to tourism - in this one I talk of:

The Fuss/Misconception Surrounding “Undercutting”:
Some have painted a very grim picture about the prevalence of the practice of “undercutting” that is supposedly rampant in the Bhutanese tourism industry. They say that it is an evil that must be rooted out. They say the practice is bad for the business. However, ask them how it is bad, how it hampers the growth of the tourism business and they are clueless. They have nothing to offer by way of justification - except that they will contend that it is illegal to “undercut”!

It is quite possible that undercutting may be in practice - but not merely confined to the big operators as is being put out. Small time operators may practice undercutting too - each of them for two entirely different reasons.

The truth is that there is no need for “undercutting”. There are a few billion prospects out there. If you are creative enough, if you work hard enough, if you are able to put your imagination to work, there is more than enough for a hundred thousand more tour operators to play the field.

That said, among trade circles, there is a different nomenclature that is employed to define “undercutting” - as we know it. It is referred to as “discount”. Nowhere in the world - including Bhutan - offering discount over the published rate is a crime. My understanding is that the TCB rule simply requires that every tourist wishing to visit Bhutan must pay a sum of US$250.00 per person per night halt. The rule does not prohibit a tour operator from offering discount to his/her tourists - as long as the discount offered does not become deductible from the Minimum Daily Tariff which is, in any event, not permitted. The crux of the matter is: how can a case of “undercutting” be proven - when the full Minimum Daily Tariff is deposited?

Small time operators offer discount because they can afford it - they have no overhead costs to factor into their pricing. The big timers offer discount because for them it is a matter of increasing volume to attain a certain level of economies of scale. Offering discount to clients is an accepted business practice everywhere else in the world.

I look at “undercutting” as a none-issue. As long as a tour operator deposits the tour payment calculated at the rate of the mandatory US$250.00 per person per night halt, no charge of “undercutting” can be leveled against the tour operator. The country does not suffer loss of foreign exchange, which is the primary concern. As long as the tour operator files his tax returns based on the business turnover calculated at US$250.00 per person per night halt, the country does not suffer reduction in tax collection.

The TCB may not recognize “discount” as a necessary evil - but remember, they have not outlawed the practice. As long as they continue to get their US$250.00 per person per night halt, “undercutting” is none-existent. It is a baseless and unproven supposition - pure and simple conjecture!

As one American professor of journalism once told me - an unproven truth is not a truth.

As to the allegation that bulk of the tourism business is monopolized by the big boys - Kuzuzangpo la - Welcome to the real world! There is only one way to fight that - work hard instead of whining - so that you too become big. Only the incompetent complain that others are doing better.

You cannot expect some Robin Hood to come and slice away someone’s business and deliver to you. Or may be, in Bhutan's case, you can!

........... End of Series

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Bhutanese Tourism Industry Under Attack: VI

The Minimum Daily Tariff has been key to Bhutan’s successful implementation of the high-value, low-impact tourism policy. It is both the launch pad and the vehicle on which rides the policy of “high-value, low-impact” tourism. The moment we remove the Minimum Daily Tariff from the equation, the policy will flounder and fail.

It has become sufficiently obvious that some of our lawmakers are intent on pandering to the greed of some select group of people; to the extent that they have become blind to the imminent dangers posed by their call for the lifting of the Minimum Daily Tariff. It is incredible that members of the country’s highest legislative body cannot perceive the dangers of their enterprise. Regardless, let me point out some that I can think of.

The removal of the Minimum Daily Tariff throws up a slew of problems, principal among them being the following:

1. Influx of undesirable tourists
2. Massive decline in Foreign exchange inflow
3. Rampant Tax evasion
4. Opportunity to maintain and operate offshore accounts
5. Hotel owners will suffer the most

Influx of undesirable tourists:
The moment we remove the Minimum Daily Tariff, the backpacking class of tourists will overwhelm our cities and villages. Thousands will overrun and overwhelm the rural population. Law and order situation will deteriorate; our culture will be diluted. Our environment will be devastated. They will bring with them strange habits and beliefs that may not find ready acceptance with the local populace. Tensions will build up and conflicts will arise. They will bargain, they will cheat, they will steal, they will smuggle, they will rape and they will defecate - resulting in building up of resentment against tourists in the minds of the local people. The Bhutanese people will develop an abhorrence for tourists.

Is this what the National Council wants?

Massive decline in foreign exchange inflow:
As of now, tourism ranks as the highest earner of untied foreign exchange. During 2014, tourism accounted for a total of US$73 million inflow of foreign exchange. The generation of this sum can be directly attributed to the mandatory Minimum Daily Tariff of US$250.00 per tourist per night halt that is required to be remitted inwards before tourists enter Bhutan.

Now, what some of the National Council members are proposing is that we do away with the Minimum Daily Tariff and require only the Royalty of US$65.00 per tourist per night halt, be collected. US$ 65.00 represents only 26% of the Minimum Daily Tariff. This means, if we do away with the Minimum Daily Tariff, we are looking at 74% drop in our foreign exchange earning. In other words, taken at 2014 figures, if we do away with the Minimum Daily Tariff, Bhutan’s foreign exchange earning will drop to US$ 19 million from US$73 million.

Is this what the National Council wants?

Rampant Tax evasion:
As of today, tourism is among the only business that is fully regulated and monitored. As a result, there is minimal chance of tax evasion. Every single tourist arrival in the country is recorded with the TCB, along with the total sum received for each tourist. Thus, the taxman is fully aware of the scale of each tour operator’s business. Should any tour operator attempt to evade tax, the DRC can simply ask the TCB for the record of their business - merely a few keystrokes away.

Once the Minimum Daily Tariff is done away with, the tour operator’s obligation is merely to deposit the Royalty portion of the tour cost - rest of the turnover cannot be recorded by the authorities because they will be oblivious to it. This will result in the taxman being completely clueless as to the real size of the business. This will open up the opportunity for the tour operators to indulge in tax evasion. Tax collection from the tourism sector will drop dramatically, while whole lot of people will be tempted to turn tax evaders.

Is this what the National Council wants?

Opportunity to maintain and operate offshore accounts:
In all likelihood, no tour operator will want his or her tourists or overseas agents to remit the full amount of the tour cost to the account of the government, since the liberalized rule will require only the Royalty portion of the tour cost be deposited with the governemnt. The tour operators will now have the opportunity to park the balance of the payment (other than the Royalty), in foreign currency, in offshore accounts that they will maintain and operate. This means that the lifting of the Minimum Daily Tariff will create an enabling condition for citizens to park unaccounted income in offshore accounts.

Is this what the National Council wants?

Hotel owners will suffer the most:
If the Minimum Daily Tariff is to be lifted, the biggest losers will be the hotel owners - particularly those in the 3-Star and 4-Star category. The 5-Star hotels and those hotels without star ranking cater to different class of clientele and are unlikely to be hampered by the paradigm shift in the tourism policy. However, the 3-4 Star hotels are the most vulnerable - they need their clients to be in the mid range - those that cannot afford 5-Star but are unwilling to go with the starless. Under the Minimum Daily Tariff system, the tour operators can comfortably afford the 3-4 Star hotel charges. But once the mass tourism is introduced, the class of tourists that will come in will be mostly those that will target the low-end hotels. On the other hand, given the intense competition that will prevail among the tour operators under the liberalized situation, the first stop in their quest for cost cutting will be the hotels - because the cost of hotel accommodation constitutes the largest component - compared to all other costs.

Is this what the National Council wants? be continued

Friday, November 27, 2015

Bhutanese Tourism Industry Under Attack: V

Whether the debate on the “liberalization” of tourism business passes into law will depend on how many of the members of the two Houses agree or disagree with the motion. However, one thing is certain - the issue will not be decided in this winter session of the National Assembly but will require many more sessions of deliberations. After all, the issue at stake is that of the country’s biggest employer and the most important industry. In fact, at this stage it is not even certain if enough members of the Upper House will support the motion - enough that they can forward the issue to the Lower House, for further deliberation.

The lifting of the Minimum Daily Tariff in itself does not constitute “liberalization”. There are a host of issues that needs to be addressed before it can become law. Right now the only thing that is being discussed is the segregation of the Royalty and doing away with the Minimum Daily Tariff. If the Minimum Daily Tariff is to be freed, how is the industry to be regulated? Rather, will it remain to be regulated? Will the government and the regulator have the moral authority and the legal basis to regulate and impose rules on how the business is to be conducted, once "liberalized"? Will the new rules require the tourists to come through local tour companies or will they apply for VISA directly to the Immigration Department or Bhutanese Embassies abroad? Who will collect the Royalty and when and how? Will it entail setting up on-line payment systems? Once the government collects its Royalty and tells the tour operators to conduct their business in an atmosphere of free enterprise and be subjected to market forces, the government and the regulator forfeits their right and authority to define minimum service levels. How will they regulate and impose conditions? Or, is it going to be free for all kind of business? It is not as simple as just lifting the Minimum Daily Tariff. Has the proponents thought of all the complexities?

So, what exactly is this "enfant terrible" Minimum Daily Tariff?

The Minimum Daily Tariff is not a price tag for a service or product - it is a unique and well thought out business strategy at the core of which is fair play to both the contracting parties. Inherent in it is the Royal Government of Bhutan’s unconditional assurance that service will be delivered as pledged; a warranty and a promise of restitution against any defective or unfulfilled service by the service provider; including assurance of full payment for services rendered.

It is a stick that keeps the snake in the straight and the narrow, and the golden goose happily quacking away singing songs of praise and approval.

Deriving confidence from the principles on which the Minimum Daily Tariff system is founded, thousands of tourists have no qualms about sending millions of dollars to a country they know nothing about - to operators they had never seen before. The Minimum Daily Tariff is a trust builder among potential visitors and to it is due all the credit for Bhutan’s steady and sure-footed progress in sustainable tourism.

Given all that, one has to be a total idiot to want to rock a system that holds so much promise.

Taking a more simplistic view, the Minimum Daily Tariff is the sum of amount designated in US$ that is mandated by rule to be charged to every tourist who visit Bhutan. A tour operator can charge higher than the set amount but not lower which, in Bhutanese tourism parlance, is known as “undercutting”. In addition to the Minimum Daily Tariff, there is also additional tariff called Surcharge - for tour groups comprising of less than three persons.

The Minimum Daily Tariff includes government Royalty of US$65.00. The prevailing Minimum Daily Tariff is US$ 250.00 per person per night halt. This means a tour operator gets to keep the gross amount of US$ 185.00 per person per night halt. Within this amount, the tour operator must provide a level of service and accommodation defined by the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), such as class and category of hotel accommodation, quality and variety of food items, licenced guide, ponies, yaks, cooks, tents and camping gear, transportation to any point etc.

Certainly this Minimum Daily Tariff fixed by the government is generous and the tour companies do make good profit. No complaints there. On the other hand, the tourists themselves think that the Minimum Daily Tariff of US$ 250.00 is more than reasonable - going by the level of services included in it.

However, the Minimum Daily Tariff is not just about numbers alone. As far as I have understood, it goes way beyond that. It is an ingenious business model designed by the government, on behalf the Bhutanese tour operators. It has worked flawlessly for the past many decades and all players are in a win-win situation.

So how does this Minimum Daily Tariff work?

The imposition of the Minimum Daily Tariff requires that the tourists or their agents make 100% payment in advance into the bank account of the TCB, once the tour is booked and confirmed. Because of this, the foreign tour agents or tourists have no reservations about making full payment in advance because they know that the Royal Government of Bhutan assures the safety of their money. On the other hand since full payment is received in advance, Bhutanese tour operators never face a situation where they are cheated out of their dues.

The tourists have another safety measure built in into this system. The TCB releases only 50% of the payment to the tour operator - the other 50% is held back by the TCB until the tour is completed and the tourists go back happy and satisfied. In the event the tour operator does not deliver to the tourists as promised and if they are unhappy with the level of service offered by the local tour operators, they can complain to the TCB and the TCB will compensate the tourists depending upon the genuineness of the complaint, from the 50% tour payment withheld by them. This boosts confidence in the tourists because they know that we have a fail-safe system where their interests are protected by the government, on their behalf.

Now tell me - who in their right minds would want to change all that?

It would be a terrible mistake to confuse Minimum Daily Tariff as a price tag for a service or a product - it is not. It is a concept for sustainable tourism that has helped Bhutan avoid the many pitfalls that other countries have suffered in their chase for the tourist dollar. Let us not make the same mistakes.

......................... to be continued

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Bhutanese Tourism Industry Under Attack: IV

I hear that the proponents of the “liberalization” are not only proposing doing away with the Minimum Daily Tariff but they are sweetening the deal - so they think - by proposing the increase of Royalty to US$ 100.00, from the current rate of US$ 65.00. They choose to propose increase in Royalty at a time when Bhutanese tour operators say that they are recording close to 30% drop in dollar paying tourist arrivals, caused by the devastation of Nepal by earthquake and the ongoing economic blockade that has brought tourism in that country to a standstill. Since Bhutan forms part of the Nepal tourism circuit, the effects are felt in Bhutan as well. Even worst, the road widening works between Thimphu and Bumthang is causing both physical and mental trauma to the tourists that is bound to result in even lower arrivals in the coming years. Bhutan’s tourism industry is destined for a severe depression and yet, our benign lawmakers are clueless about it. On the contrary, they propose a complete cataclysm in the industry.

That is the quality of some of our lawmakers! How long are we going to depend on divine providence to save our butts? The talk in town is that even the stalling of the ratification of the BBIN Transport Agreement by the National Assembly during this session was because of the intervention by our protecting deities - given the bizarre circumstances that lead to the bill’s nullification.

If the brood of lawmakers that are pushing for the lifting of the Minimum Daily Tariff have there way, one thing is certain: it will usher in an era of fronting in the tourism industry. So far this is among the few businesses where there is no incidence of fronting. The Royal Government of Bhutan has been trying to remove the malice of fronting since the late '70s, unsuccessfully.

The big players from outside the country will take over the business and the Bhutanese players will be edged out. In a way I think it may have already begun. I understand that one big player from the region has already placed their representative in Bhutan who manages all the business - including receiving their guests at Paro airport.

A time will come when there will be no rooms available for the dollar paying guests because the hotel owners and managers would have pre-sold their rooms to the regional players (at one third the price) who pay them millions in advance. Over time, these hotels will be bought off by these players and slowly they will monopolize the business. I know that the law of the land does not permit outsiders to own property in Bhutan but ACC reveals that some of the buildings in Phuentsholing have been sold to outsiders.

In the belief that the proposers of the lifting of the Minimum Daily Tariff do not understand the tourism trade, I would like to inform them that the tourism business is an organized business. One has to understand how and who generates tourist traffic to Bhutan.

Dago Bida of Etho Metho tells me that of the thousands of tourists that her company brings into Bhutan every year, less than hundred are individual enquiries. This means that the tourist traffic is generated by outside tour agents. Thus, the NC’s blue-eyed hotel owners still have to deal with agents - if not with the local ones – outside ones. However, the outside agents will prefer to deal with the local tour operators since hotel accommodation is only a small part of the overall logistical support the outside tour agents will need.

To some extent I do empathize with the hotel owners. I know of cases where the tour operators have not paid the hotels for years. This is not good for the industry. The hotels are an integral part of the success story of Bhutan’s tourism trade. The hotels must be paid in time so that they can provide better service and make improvements to their property. Thus, to me it seems like the thing to do is not go crying to the NC to devastate the tourism trade but to get their acts together and ensure that government provide them protection from the tyranny of the tour operators.

Asking for the lifting of the Minimum Daily Tariff will devastate the country, let alone the tourism industry, while not serving their interest. The hotel owners must ensure that they consider national interest above and beyond their personal greed. The country will be overwhelmed by the riffraff and all sorts of trouble will start.

Here is homework for those lawmakers who are pushing for “liberalization”:

Ask the tour operators: who brought in the Thai tourists under the “special Thai package” how much profit they made. In fact ask them: did you make profit at all?

Next, ask the Tax Department: how much tax was collected from the tour operators on the business/profit generated by them from the special Thai deal?

Ask the hotel owners: at what rate they sold their rooms to accommodate these visitors.

I hope the answers will convince you to desist from ruining a perfectly good thing that we have.

.................. to be continued

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Bhutanese Tourism Industry Under Attack: III

The concerted effort to “liberalize” the tourism trade in Bhutan seems to be solely focused on de-pegging the Royalty from the Minimum Daily Tariff - and completely doing away with the Minimum Daily Tariff itself. The proponents point out that while the government will be in the happy situation of continuing to keep its royalty of US$65.00 per day for every tourist entering Bhutan, the tour operators will be in the happy situation of being able to determine, on their own, what Minimum Daily Tariff they can collect from the tourists, based on market realities. This is all hunky-dory - except that it has one fundamental problem: it is in direct conflict with the principles of “High-value, Low-volume" tourism that has been at the core of our tourism development policy.

Those people who are calling for the paradigm shift in our tourism policy has to answer some very basic questions:

= Has the guiding principal behind our tourism policy outlived its usefulness or relevance?

= Are we now going to succumb to the allure of plenty over quality?

= Does Bhutan have the carrying capacity to admit and manage increased numbers?

=Are the Bhutanese people prepared to be tolerant and indifferent to the cultural invasion and
  environmental wreckage that will be caused by the riffraff who will invade the country if this “liberalized”
   policy is adopted?

What exactly is the concept behind low volume, high value tourism? 

When His Majesty the IVth Druk Gyalpo opened up the country to tourism in 1974, he was in no doubt of the benefits that tourist dollar would bring to the country. However, he also had the foresight to understand that uncontrolled and unregulated tourism could cause serious cultural shock, religious intolerance, including environmental destruction. Therefore, he decreed that the principal of “High-value, Low-volume” would guide Bhutan’s tourism policy. This visionary policy has worked admirably for the past four decades.

The logic behind the principal is simple: Admit only manageable numbers by excluding the riffraff and keep the tariff reasonably high so that only the educated, the learned, the aged and the wise can afford to visit Bhutan. That is why the Minimum Daily Tariff came to be introduced – to control numbers and yet boost earnings at the same time. The Minimum Daily Tariff has seen substantial increase over the years – so has number of arrivals.

Keeping the Minimum Daily Tariff high is akin to common exams in our schools - it is a weeding out process where the undesirable and the unsuitable are automatically excluded from the list of visitors. This helps because Bhutan does not have the carrying capacity anyway.

The net result of this policy has been that visitors to Bhutan have always been educated, wise and tolerant of the peculiarities of our culture, religion and social habits. They are wise enough to understand and accept that they are in a different culture and do not ridicule and mock at ours, thereby not provoking outrage and retaliation from the local populace. This is the reason why there is no case of conflict between tourists and the local population, unlike in other countries. This will not be the case if we accept tourists that are outside the class and maturity that currently visit Bhutan.

The tourist dollar is important – but in its pursuit, we cannot forego our values, our pristine environment, our social harmony and cultural purity. Don’t forget that they are our selling point – the tourists come because of what we are and what our country represents. We lose that and the tourists disappear.

Already we are in serious danger of losing focus. Look at the dangerous trend in our thinking:

In the beginning : “High-Value, Low-Volume”   = Good Value + Less Quantity
Now                   : “High-Value, Low-Impact”     = Good Value + Good Quantity
Proposed            : “Liberalized”                           = Neither Value nor Quality

Please do not open the floodgates - once we do there is no retrieval.

.................. to be continued