Thursday, April 23, 2015

Roads of Doom? Part IV

Recently I was twiddling my thumbs at the Tekezampa road closure when I was returning from Bumthang, when something struck me:

Why do we need to widen our roads to the size of an airstrip that can accommodate a commercial jetliner?

Has the East-West vehicular traffic increased so much that we need to expand the width of our roads? Has there been some sudden explosion of commercial/manufacturing activities in the East that we need to widen our roads leading to, and from there?

If not, what mammoth vehicles are we planning to ply over the East-West highway that we need to widen the roads, in preparation?

In my view, the roads we have are quite fine for the volume of traffic it has to carry at the moment - except that they are riddled with potholes, poorly paved and maintained. If the government wishes to improve our roads, the way to go is to resurface the existing roads in a much better way and ensure that they are maintained properly. A well-paved road can certainly shorten travel time and improve road travel experience for the tourists and locals alike.

Even if widening of the roads to the size of an airstrip is necessary, for whatever reason, there is a need to do it with better planning and foresight. What is being done currently is a total mess that will imperil our vitally important tourism industry.

I propose:

Stop the road-widening project between Wangdue and Trongsa for the moment.

Complete the ongoing road-widening project between Thimphu and Wangdue, pave it well and resurface it and let the traffic flow without any hindrance. By the way, why is this stretch of road taking so long to complete? It has been going on for nearly a decade since the work started. If a mere 60 KMs of road is going to take us a decade to do, imagine what time will be taken to complete the road from Wangdue to Trongsa - a distance of 130 KMs.

Once the Thimphu-Wangdue segment is completed in all respects, start the Wangdue-Trongsa segment. However, do it in shorter stretches - and not all the way to Trongsa all at once. Undertake no more than 20 KM stretches at one go but employ a number of contractors to work on the stretch all at one time. Complete the stretches in the shortest possible time, resurface is and allow traffic to flow on the completed stretch, unhindered. Then move to the next segment.

Extend the road opening time to atleast one and a half hours - so that people can better time their travel hours.

Simultaneously, work on improving the road condition between Wangdue-Gaylephu and Trongsa-Gaylegphu so that tourist traffic can be diverted.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Roads of Doom? Part III

At one time during my various trips within the country, I started my journey from Bumthang at the ungodly hour of 3.30AM. This was necessary because I had to make it to Nobding before 9AM – when they open the road for traffic until 9.30AM – only to be stranded at Tekezampa road closure.

There were occasions when I required my guests to get up at 4.00AM in the morning so they can start their journey from Thimphu at 5AM – in order that they can beat the road closure at Lamperi. I offered the excuse that they needed to cross Lamperi before 8.00AM after which the road would close for traffic until 10.00AM. That is a lousy excuse for visitors who pay US$250.00 a day and more, to be asked to get up at 4AM - merely to beat a road closure.

And we think we are doing them a great favor!

A few days back, I heard of a tour group that started from Phobjikha towards Paro. By the time they reached Wangduephodrang - a distance of around 60 KMs - they were so fatigued and tired and frustrated by the roadblocks that they did not wish to proceed any further. The tour operator had to accept an unplanned night halt at Punakha, at great expense.

Another group traveling from Phobjikha to Haa also ended up night halting at Thimphu - because the tourists were so tired and frustrated by the numerous stoppages at road closures - that they refused to go beyond Thimphu. The tour operator had to arrange hotel accommodation in Thimphu and pay for the cancellation at Haa.

A few days back, a tour operator providing bird watching trips arranged for camping at Pele-La so they could do early bird watching in that area. Unfortunately he found that the road closure at Nobding opened at 9.00 and gave him only half hour to pass Tekezam before the road closed for traffic. Thus he was faced with a choice: either do bird watching in the area and be prepared to be stranded for hours at Tekezampa or beat the road closure at Tekezampa and miss bird watching in that area which was the sole reason for camping at Pele-La.

I can bet my last Chettrum that these are not stray incidences – there must be many such horror stories out there.

What kind of experiences are we giving the tourists? What horror stories will be told other prospective visitors, when these beleaguered tourists go back home?

The road-widening project has been a source of great worry for the tour operators and the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) - the regulatory authority that oversees tourism in Bhutan. About two weeks back, some members of the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) and the officers of the TCB made a joint/separate representation to the National Council of Bhutan - to do something about it. I have no idea if something has come of it. However I have been witness to a gathering of the following luminaries at Lamperi, on Sunday the 12th April, 2015 when I was on my way to Trongsa. I am encouraged to believe that they were on a field trip to make amends, hopefully:

Lyonpo Dorji Chhoden, Minister of Works & Human Settlement
His Excellency Indian Ambassador Gautam Bambawale
Dr. Sonam Tenzing, Secretary, Ministry of Works & Human Settlement
Aum Chhimmy Pem, Director, Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB)
Aum Tashi Wangmo, Eminent Member, National Council of Bhutan
And many others I didn't have the time to see or recognize.

It is my hope that something useful has emerged from the above people gathering at Lamperi. They need to do something URGENTLY - or see the tourist arrivals dwindle in the coming years. All that hard work for the past many years would have gone down the drain if we allow the only industry that has any chance of redeeming this country from the stranglehold of debt and despair that we now find ourselves in, to be run into the ground becuase we are incapable of better planning and foresight.

And for what? For the cause of a wide, wide road that we do not even know we need? be continued

Monday, April 20, 2015

Roads of Doom? Part II

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

Friday, April 17, 2015

Roads of Doom? Part I

What is it with our roads? All of a sudden, our roads are at the center of our focus and, trouble!

Note the following media reports in Bhutan as well as in India:

“Construction of 68.3 Kms. Nganglam-Dewathang  highway: deferred indefinitely”.

“The 98Kms. Lhamoizingkha-Sarbang highway aborted”.

“Project Dantak will execute the 52km widening from Trashigang-Yadi”.

“The 546km Thimphu-Trashigang road widening work begins next month”.

“Chazam-Duksum road widening work well on track”.

“Shingkhar-Gorgan road makes it to the 11th Plan”.

“India seems not to have lost its hope of building a road through Bhutan to have an easier access to Tawang, near the Sino-Indian border in Arunachal Pradesh, from the plains of Assam. Bhutan is not willing to allow the construction of the road because of objections from China”.

“Quoting official sources, the report said that the issue was raised by Narendra Modi during his trip to Bhutan as Prime Minister—“

“The PTI report said External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had been requested by political representatives from Arunachal Pradesh to convince Bhutan about the benefits it will bring to the economy of that country besides curtailing travel time between strategically important Tawang and Guwahati”.

Clearly, what is emerging is that our roads, like our hydro-power projects, have the potential to bring about our eventual doom. There is something terribly amiss - at the manner and the haste with which we are going about our road widening initiatives.

........ to be continued

This one is funny too!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Funny Signage

What do you understand by the following signboard put up at the entrance of Lamperi Cafe?

For those of you who are photographers, tell me - what is the flaw in this photo, taken with my iPhone. I wont make this mistake if I was using a proper camera ... but shooting with a mobile phone is rather cumbersome.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Gleeful KUENSEL

KUENSEL’s Editorial of the 7th April, 2015:

For a bigger and safer airport

"It was quite a spectacle for the thousands of people, who visited Paro over the weekend. The Paro tshechu, the Royal flower exhibition and, to the surprise of many, all the seven aircraft operated by the two Bhutanese airlines were on the ground at the same time.

It was a beautiful sight, as hundreds waited, stranded in a terrible traffic jam on the single lane road that runs beside the airport."


Friday, April 10, 2015

Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB)

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) - with a target capital of US$100 billion, is promoted by China, to free itself and its member states from the control and influence of the overlords who control the IMF and the World Bank. Already, 30 countries have been approved as Founding Members that include India and most European countries. Some more may join by the April 15 deadline. Unfortunately, there is no talk of the Land of the Thunder Dragon being part of the consortium.

Take a look at the following map that shows the countries that currently form AIIB membership. Poor Bhutan is a blotch of grey within a sea of color.

May be it is still not too late - today is only the 10th - we have 5 more days to make it to the list of Prospective Founding Members (PFMs) of the AIIB.