Tuesday, September 27, 2022

True Friends Stand By Us

The razzmatazz of the birth of a new child - that of Bhutan’s tourism - is now, hopefully, behind us. Although seemingly unconcerned, many of us private citizens have been more engaged than most of the drummers and honkers that make up the transformation brigade. All across the country - Paro, Phuentsholing, Samdrup Jongkhar, Gelephu, Samtse etc. colorful flags have been unfurled, dancing girls and hooded monks did their thing - the change makers stooped low to welcome the pleasantly surprised visitors who came with the old “Faith” in mind but hopefully will go back home with a new “Belief”.

It is now time to move on; we will need to put to rest our individual differences - the child is now out of the womb and in the open. It is now everyone’s duty to care for and nurture the infant. Whether Apsara-like or grotesque and deformed, it is our child - we will have to take charge of it until it is firmly on its feet. From here on forward, it should not be about not being our fault - but about how we might collectively contribute to correcting the course.

But for me the silver lining at the end of all the razzle-dazzle and show of brilliance and incomparability, has been the demure event that took place in Jaigaon across the border in India, on 24th September, 2022. The Indian business community across the border celebrated Bhutan’s opening of tourism - with their own brand of celebrations. This was a touching moment - a re-enforcement, if any were needed, of their trust and faith in Bhutan, their joy in our small successes, and their commitment to walk the distance with us - through thick and thin. Proof that they will forgive us our minor quirks, as we are wont to do theirs.

Expression of happiness and joy.

India has supported Bhutan in every sphere of our nation building - from our first Five Year Plan to the present. To this day they remain firmly behind us, pandering to our every whim and fancy. The friendship and generosity the Indian people offer us is unparalleled.

At the end - we matter to them because they matter to us. There is mutual benefit to harmonious coexistence. In their progress is our progress - we succeed because they do. This has been the guiding principal on which is founded our close to three-fourth century of nurturing each other - we will continue to do so for many eons to come. After all, we are common in our shared culture and religion.

One thing is a matter of great regret - Bhutan could never draw in the Indian tourists of standing. The Indian middle class is hundred times richer than any chilips. The Indians have billions in black money that they do not know where to spend. The policy hawks will do well to divert their attention from chilips to attract the rich Indians who number in the hundreds of millions. Economically, it makes sense to target the closest markets - India and China - to give us the numbers that we seek, despite our smarting.

In this direction, the TCB has failed miserably. The tour operators too failed to grasp the potential that exists in the vast Indian market - our most favored nation and supporter.

Friday, September 23, 2022

BHUTAN is OPEN

Today is 23rd September - a day traditionally celebrated by the Bhutanese as the Blessed Rainy Day, or THRUE BAP as it is called in Bhutanese - a day that marks the end of the monsoon season. On this day, people take bath outside so that the blessed rain that is believed to fall from the heavens will wash away all their past and ongoing sins and diseases.

I looked in all directions - East, West, South and North - there was no hint of any rain - whether blessed or otherwise - atleast not in Thimphu where I am domiciled. Thus the dwellers of Thimphu will likely have to live with their sins and diseases - for the next one year.

Bhutan's brand new tagline "Believe". The old "Happiness is a Place" has been booted out.

But for many Bhutanese, this day holds greater meaning than the washing of sins - it is TODAY that the country throws OPEN its borders for tourism - since 5th March, 2020 when the first case of COVID-19 was detected and our first 21 days lockdown that was announced on 11th August, 2020.

This is a most happy day indeed! I offer my greetings and good wishes to all the tourism stakeholders within the country, as well as those outside. The wait has been long and painful - but it is now over and we are all poised for better times and brighter future, splendored with opportunities.

I hope that many of the tour operators who have been forced to close down their offices due to the pandemic, would now be encouraged to reopen their establishments, for business as usual.

It is also hoped that many of the hotels that have had to relieve their many staff will now be encouraged to reemploy their workers, emboldened by the promise the new tourism policy holds for the industry.

I hope that many of the tour guides who have had to go back to their roots and take up farming and other vocations, will now find encouragement in the new way of doing things, and retake-up their jobs in which they have been skilled.

I hope that the mule owners will be encouraged to buy back their mules that they were forced to sell off during the pandemic - with the hope that the opening of tourism will translate into business as usual, their traditional business that they had to give up for the past close to three years.

I hope that the rural farmers and weavers will see greater opportunities in their chosen craft; I wish and hope that the reopening of tourism will usher in an era of vigorous production and commerce for the group of people who are at the lowest rung of the Bhutanese social ladder.

I hope too, that the phallus carver would once again be able to station himself in the lanes and by-lanes of Thimphu’s vegetable market - to sheepishly peddle his handiwork to the passersby giggling past him.

Most importantly, I hope that the country will see millions upon hundred of millions of $$ in remittances that we so desperately need.

Lest history is wrongly recorded: Although tourism is supposed to have been disallowed, the truth is that tourists have been entering Bhutan - in dribs and drabs.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

The People's Pandemic

A battle like no other, and Bhutan came out smelling like the roses.

A book will soon be available to the Bhutanese people that will describe in detail how the battle was won, who were the strategists behind the scene and who were the foot soldiers.

The look and feel of the Book


An excerpt from the book: The People's Pandemic

The book provides undeniable proof that we live in a land that hasn't survived by accident.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Tourism Industry: Are We Prepared For The Transformation?

I have been bewildered for the past many months - what am I missing? What am I unable to see? Have I gone well and truly senile? Have I lost my most rudimentary mathematics skill? What is so complicated about Bhutan's new Tourism Act of 2022?

I decided to devote two evenings to sit down and do my numbers - because in these perilous times, numbers matter. And, for the purpose of simplicity, I wanted to keep it simple.

UNDER THE MDPR REGIME
Under the tried and tested way of doing things that came to be known as the Minimum Daily Package Rate (MDPR) - a business philosophy that guided Bhutan’s tourism policy and a business model that ruled the roost for close to half a century, the numbers tell the story:
The implementation of the Minimum Daily Package Rate (MDPR) helped propel tourism to the top as the largest employer and highest foreign exchange earner in the country - with benefits accrued to the broad spectrum of Bhutanese society. Any and all Bhutanese who dared to hope and dream had a ready launch pad to act as a springboard to catapult them to heights unimagined in the wildest of their dreams.

As opposed to the above, a new business concept has been introduced - retrospectively effective from 20th June, 2022 - in which the SDF has been increased to US$200.00 - from the earlier US$65.00. With this new kid in town, the concept of the venerable MDPR was unceremoniously put to pasture and relegated to history. The new way of doing business will begin with the opening of tourism as of September 23, 2022, the numbers are likely to pan out as follows:

In place of the MDPR, the new tourism Act of 2022 calls for the collection of SDF at US$200.00 - but everything else remains mute. As the rough projections above show, the SDF may have seen triple fold increase - but the inflow of $$ and tax collection is seen to fall dramatically.

I have said these many times before - but I will say them again:

Under the MDPR regime, 100% of the “designated” tour payments were mandatory to be paid in advance. Tourism business was wholly owned and run by the Bhutanese, although few stray cases of fronting - both minor and major, were reported. Notwithstanding the incessant charge that there is undercutting in the industry, I know of no one who got away without paying the “designated” amount of MDPR, well almost.

Under the MDPR regime, it was impossible for tour operators to conceal business turnover given that TCB had all the records of business conducted by each of the country's tour operators, resulting in 100% collection of tax, as owed. By extension, hoteliers' true size of business were open to scrutiny by the tax department. With MDPR in place the TCB had the moral and administrative authority to administer ethical business practices among the tour operators. The tourism players were happy since what was on the table was more than adequate to keep every one happy and bouncy. No doubt there were some bad apples - that is because the authorities did not have the wherewithal to discipline the rogues.

Under the MDPR regime, it was all about protecting the brand Bhutan. Ofcourse some did not adhere - that is because those people in authority did not have the guts to do what they were expected to do.

Sadly, it is made to appear that the new policy’s focus is only on the collection of SDF, and everything else is subservient to the realization of this goal. To be fair, that is not really true - we know that the government has the industry’s long-term sustainability in mind. It is for this reason that the industry IS NOT in opposition of the new policy - but the manner in which it is implemented. Unfortunately, despite every body’s untiring efforts, the TCB and the industry players are dangerously inching towards a space in which, at best, they can co-exist as uneasy bedfellows, and not committed partners to a common cause.

The new rules and regulations practically shunt out the Bhutanese tour operators and go all out to encourage outside tour companies, tour agents and tourists, to conduct business directly with the government and the wannabes in the country. It is simply insane to think that a tourist who is willing to pay US$200.00 as SDF would be willing to position himself/herself at the EXIT gate and flag down taxis and go hunting for hotels and guides upon arrival in the country. But the larger worry is that this amateurish attempt is bound to cause massive fall in tax collection and inflow of foreign exchange - because they are required to bring in only the SDF of US$200.00 - which is, coincidentally, shy of US$50.00 compared to the MDPR of US$250.00. Here is a strange situation: the SDF has been jacked up threefold to US$200.00 - from US$65.00. I would have thought that a comparable increase in the inflow of foreign exchange would have been expected. It does not look like it - mathematics show that there is actually a dip of inflow of foreign currency, by as much as 12%. Even worst, tax collection is seen to drop by as much as 60%. To be fair it will not be so much - but since the income from other sectors - other than airlines and handicraft sectors - is rendered impossible to be recorded accurately, it is not possible to determine the size of their business, and thus, tax leviable on them.

Under the SDF only regime, even tour operators and hoteliers will fall under the grey area - unregulated business.

It will encourage under-declaration both by tour operators as well as the hoteliers. There are possibilities that tour operators might use the foreign agents and even individual tourists to conceal turnover, thereby escape paying the government's just dues. Even hoteliers are bound to take this route. The “SDF only” dictate opens up avenues for the immoral and the wayward to play hanky-panky.

Talking of hoteliers, their plight is even more precarious. I had submitted to the Hon’ble Prime Minister during his informal press briefing that a much bigger problem would confront the hotel industry. That they built the hotels based on a conducive policy that was in place and that when that policy is altered, the onus must rest with the government to bail them out of the sticky situation that they have been put into. The RGoB, whether past or present, needs to work at rescuing them from out of the quagmire.

I get the feeling that pegging the SDF to a suitably enhanced MDPR, and going ahead with business as usual seems to be the most workable method of doing business – particularly when conditions are in a confused state and are not very easeful. We are just a little over ten days away from Zero Hour and the Department of Immigration who is supposed take over the issue of Visa and collection of the SDF - remains unengaged and very, very quite.

It is my hope that the government would reassess the situation that is currently prevailing, and consider deferring the implementation of the new Act – until we are ready to take on the transformation initiative in the spirit and with the sure-footedness that such an upheaval warrants.

It is sufficiently clear that WE ARE SIMPLY NOT READY!

Friday, September 9, 2022

Tourism Rules and Regulation of Bhutan 2022 – V: Happy Convergence

There is a kahawat (saying) in India: Bhagwan ke ghar mey dhair hai, aandhair nahi. Roughly it means: In the house of God there may be delay but not darkness.

It appears that the TCBS’ Council Meeting yesterday to which were invited the tourism industry’s key players, went pretty well. That is nice - as I said in my earlier posts, tourism is a common cause, at the core of which is the need for convergence of views. Everyone has to understand that the tourism industry is bound to suffer - as in everything else - should we go with the belief that each element that go to make the sum total, can act in isolation of the other. Such an approach is bound to fail.
Happy Convergence

Since the early 1980s I have been propagating the idea that a good and progressive law, or rule or regulation is one that aspires to FACILITATE and not CONTROL. Unfortunately it seems like it is still about control, and not of liberalization and facilitation. History has proven time and again that control breeds renegades, and throttles entrepreneurial spirit.

Coming back to the Tourism Rules and Regulation 2022, I am given to understand that following changes have been accepted during the consultative meeting with the TCBS and the industry representatives which consisted of every sector head of the tourism.

Not Carved In Stone: It was clearly pronounced by the TCBS Chair as well as the Director General of the TCBS that the Tourism Rules and Regulation 2022 is subject to change and amendment, should the need arise.

Tour Operators Now Designated as a point through which to received SDF: In the earlier proposal prepared by the TCBS, nowhere was there a mention of tour operator being a point through which SDF may be received. The need for the role of the tour operators was ignored. The revised rules and regulations now designate tour operators as well – as a point through which tour payments may be received.

Reinstating Various Discounts: It has been agreed that the TCBS will pursue the matter with the Ministry of Finance on the issue relating to a number of discounts that were in place as per Tourism Rules and Regulations 2017 – atleast for tours confirmed before 20th June, 2022.

Tour Operators Can Represent Tourists/Tour Groups for Visa Application: It has further been agreed, which was earlier missing, that tour operators could also apply for Visa and Permits – on behalf of the tourist or a tour group.

Negative List: It appears that a NEGATIVE LIST – places that are out of bounds for visitation by tourists, has been finalized. TCBS will circulate the list soon.

Age Limit On Tourist Vehicles: The earlier requirement of an age limit on vehicles conveying tourists has now been done away with.

Cancellation Policy: Cancellation policy is also agreed to be governed by that which is agreed between the service provider and the tourists/tour groups.

Force Majeure Clause: It is agreed to be governed by the principals on the grounds of which this clause is accepted internationally.

Trekking Permit: Accepted to be routed through a tour operator - status quo.

Business Bond: There appears to be difference of opinion - on the need for this. What the TCBS does not consider is that few, if at all, has the liquidity to fulfill this requirement - given that business has been at a stand still for nearly three years. It is hoped that the Cabinet would reconsider this issue favourably - atleast for few years, until the industry gets back on its feet.

Further Discussion: It has been pointed out that the agreed changes in the proposed Tourism Rules and Regulations 2022 will be further discussed with the Steering and Advisory Committee, before it is submitted to the Cabinet for approval. From where I stand, this is fair - I do not believe that there would be opposition from any quarters - on a paper endorsed by the whole of the industry stalwarts, including the Council Members of the regulatory authority.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Tourism Rules and Regulations of Bhutan 2022 IV

Bhutan’s star-crossed romance with hydropower is now as good as over. Its appeal as a technology of choice has lost its sheen across the world - a number of other less costly and less harmful technologies have taken center stage. Hydropower is now viewed as costlier and more environmentally destructive way of producing energy. It is now old hat. It is for this reason the Bhutan has rightly halted further hydropower development – until all the hydropower projects currently under construction is completed and brought on stream. Our lone egg basket - India - has seen quantum jump is energy production. They are now energy surplus. For the past many years, India’s investment in hydropower has been next to nothing - they are focusing on more efficient and less destructive technologies.

The Land of Happiness is now a place of confounding confusion

With hydropower having made to eat humble pie, what are Bhutan’s options? There are a few that we can bank on:

     ~  Forestry
     ~  Mining
     ~  Agriculture
     ~  Tourism

Harvesting of forest produce: According to figures released by the government, harvesting of our rotting forests is said to present phenomenal potential - far in excess of hydropower. Forestry analyst Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel has been going hoarse making the point that we are destroying our forest stand due to rotting and mismanagement, and that we should harvest what is going to waste and ruining our ecology. But either the figures put out by the government are whole lot of hogwash or, Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel has the wrong color of skin.

Mining: To be sure we are doing pretty OK with mining and export of minerals, including boulders. But this is a high volume low value commodity and it can only do so much.

Agriculture: Less said the better about this sector’s utter failure, recorded over many decades. The agriculture production has seen unfailing decline over the years. Even while boasting of phenomenal altitudinal range and soil types, we are unable to produce enough to feed ourselves – let alone for the export market.

Tourism: This should now qualify as the shining star of the day. In terms of real net gain and employment generation, tourism has always been at the top. It holds top slot for foreign exchange earning as well. Few understand the real cost behind hydropower projects – not even when faced with the reality that imported energy – such as LPG gas and kerosene as a source of energy - are cheaper than our own electricity which we are told we produce in abundance. Few know that what we earn from export of electricity is more or less spent on import of fossil fuel.

Tourism has thus far been the only business in Bhutan where there is 100% collection of tax - without the possibility of concealment. There is perhaps no other business that generates tax at multiple levels: SDF from tourists at the first instance, followed by tax from tour operators, from hotel owners, handicraft business establishments, transport companies, guides etc. etc. - from one and the same tourist group.

Bhutan’s tourism industry stakeholders have been unrelenting in their pursuit for a workable and conducive atmosphere in which to do business. Recently, the sector heads of tourism had a meeting with the Tourism Council of Bhutan - to try and humanize the rules and regulations that are being proposed for adoption. We are not certain if the industry managed to make a dent into the rigid thinking of the TCB. Today - 8th September, 2022, the sector heads are once again participating in the meeting of the Council Members of the TCBS. We expect that the sector heads will not fail to impress upon the TCB Council why it is important to operate in an atmosphere of cooperation and congeniality. If they fail to do so, we will all fail.

The proposed rules and regulations, once discussed at the Board Meeting today, is due to be submitted to the Cabinet Members - on September 10, 2022. The industry remains hopeful that the rules and regulations will be rationalized at that stage.

My exit line: There seems to be a notion afloat that increasing the SDF from US$65.00 to US$200.00 will mean a triple jump in the inflow of $$. The reality will be that even if the number of arrivals exceed that of the pre-COVID era, the inflow of $$ will be far less than that which could have been generated under a MDPR regime.

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Tourism Rules and Regulations of Bhutan 2022 III

The Tourism Levy Bill of Bhutan 2022 was tabled as a Money Bill - it should have been introduced as a Financial Bill. That having said, there is nothing wrong with the Tourism Levy Act of Bhutan 2022 - the tourism industry welcomed it as something that has been long in coming.


Where the industry was caught flat-footed is in the nature of the beast - the Money Bill has to come into effect from the date it is introduced - retrospectively. For the tourism industry that is what caused the milk to curdle - the introduction of the Bill as a Money Bill. Had it been introduced as a Financial Bill, it would have been smooth sailing for the government and the Tourism Council of Bhutan and, most importantly, the tourism industry players. The ongoing agitated mood of the industry is not because of the introduction of SDF of US$200.00 - it has to do with the immediate implantation of the Act - which is seen as tyrannical and delusional, given its impracticability.

But all that is now water under the bridge - but I refuse to believe that it is a case of flogging the dead horse - I believe that we can still nurse back the dying horse - the deathblow is far from mortal.

I am encouraged to learn that the TCB is scheduled to meet all the different tourism sectors today, and discuss the yet to be introduced Tourism Rules and Regulations of Bhutan 2022. Some industry members are not impressed – they believe that this is just an eyewash – that the TCB and the government will do exactly what they want to do, that they are hoodwinking the people. I have been trying to encourage them to participate in the consultative process, regardless. That history must bear witness to the fact that the industry tired to correct the course that is headed down the perilous path. We cannot give up so easily - at the end of the day, it is us the common man on the street who will be the bigger losers - not the government or the TCB. They have their state funded salary, perks, entitlements, vehicles and fuel, to tide them over through the worst of times.

In closing I would like to wish the VERY BEST OF LUCK to those members of ABTO, GAB, HRAB and HAB who are due to participate in todays meeting with the TCB. I hope they go in into the meeting with a wide-open mind - so that they are successful in opening the closed minds of the TCB and its transformation team.

Saturday, September 3, 2022

Tourism Rules and Regulations of Bhutan 2022 II

The most effective crowd control strategy is when you plan an exit point when the mayhem breaks out - it is not through shepherding the crowd. Similarly, popular rules and regulations are those that are framed in consultation with those who will be most affected by them - not by springing them as a surprise, as if to say - GOTCHA!!!.

The diminishing allure of the land of GNH

The premise on which the TCB appears to be departing is that the tourism stakeholders are the enemy of the nation; that the tour operators are out to ruin this country. If this were not so, why are the flag-bearers of the tourism industry kept in the dark? Why are the tourism rules and regulations done in great secrecy, in the most clandestine fashion?

When Bhutan’s Constitution was drafted and due to be adopted upon introduction of constitutional monarchy as the form of governance, it was discussed across the nation - their Majesty’s traveled to every one of the country’s twenty Districts - sought the views and opinions of the Bhutanese people, so that an acceptable Constitution that has the concurrence and endorsement of the people of Bhutan is adopted. On the contrary, the TCB chose to draft the Tourism Rules and Regulations of Bhutan 2022 in the most clandestine fashion and in the greatest of secrecy - shielded and fortified from the industry players.

The country’s most able and competent industry leaders feel that there is now an atmosphere of antagonism prevailing in the industry. One pioneering tour operator who has been in the business for close to four decades told me the following yesterday evening:

“People who where not even born when I started tourism business are now elected to assess my competence as a tour operator”.

The message here is clear - a feeling is developing that TCB treats the industry leaders as small kids who need education in how to run their business. Such exasperation is bound to create an atmosphere where the TCB and the tourism industry players are pushed towards two opposite ends of the pole - a most undesirable development.

And yet, the industry leaders have not given up hope - the leaders of the tourism sector associations are still hopeful of saving the day - a few days back they submitted a joint appeal to the Chair of the TCB - for an eyeball-to-eyeball discussion on the proposed Tourism Rules and Regulations of Bhutan 2022 before it is adopted. It is hoped that this will come through and an acceptable version of the rules and regulations will come to be tabled before the Tourism Council Board, for submission to the Cabinet, which is the rule of procedure.

There are many, many issues with the rules proposed by the TCB. But the following are some of the most unimaginative and most glaring that needs reconsideration.

TCB’s guidelines on adopting names of tour companies
This is clearly an indication of how ignorant the TCB is. This is not in their domain. This comes under the purview of the Department of Intellectual Property of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. They have trained intellectual property lawyers with the knowledge and experience in these matters - they have a set of rules governing the issue. TCB is attempting to override the authority of the designated authorities.

Refund Policy on cancelled tours
The TCB has taken on itself the responsibility to determine the rates of refund on cancelled tours. While the TCB can point out that there ought to be a well-defined refund policy to avoid ambiguity, the rates should be left to the service providers and the tourists to decide. The TCB has to remember that most often the rates are agreed between the tourists and the tour operators’ agents abroad – they may have their own refund policy - distinct from the TCB’s.

Transport for use as conveyance for the visiting tourists
Here too the TCB has the bull by the tail. But the issue has been sufficiently covered in my earlier post on the issue.

Deposit sought by the TCB from tour operators and the hoteliers
The TCB should have asked for Nu.5,000,000.00 instead of Nu.500,000.00 - pun intended. This requirement is indicative of how insensitive and uncaring the TCB is towards the industry. They are aware that the tourism business has been at a stand still for the past nearly three years. There has been no income. The hoteliers are pleading with their creditors for deferment of loan repayments. Where are the people expected to come up with the deposits?

The government, which includes the TCB, needs to remember that the common people do not have the luxury that they have - to dip into public funds, as and when they want and desire. The Ministers, Secretaries, Director Generals and even the office peons have the assurance of their salaries, pool vehicles, free fuel and their perks that help keep them afloat - even in situations of worst pandemics, and even while they are designing the most idiotic rules and regulations.

The general public, by contrast, is dependent on the competence and wisdom of the people at the helm of things. When they fail, we are bound to fail. Thus it is for this reason that the public seeks engagement, not as an act of affront - but as a means to arriving at amicable solutions to a common cause.

Tuesday, August 30, 2022

Tourism Rules and Regulations of Bhutan 2022

The DRAFT “Tourism Rules and Regulations of Bhutan 2022” tinkered by the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) is proposing that no vehicle intended for transporting tourists should be over 7 years old. There are a host of problems with this. In the hope of contributing to the seamless transformation process, and in line with the TCB’s wishes, I would like to offer my following thoughts, although so far there is no indication that citizen’s suggestions count for anything.

The Toyota Land Cruiser Model FJ40 I drove during 1978/79 when I was on deputation from the government to the private sector in Phuentsholing. Two years back I saw this vehicle still on the road - after nearly 48 years of its manufacture!

What is the rationale behind introducing the age limit? And why 7 years? TCB ought to know that even Singapore allows the use of a vehicle for 15 years - 10 years during the initial COE (Certificate of Entitlement) period and then 5 additional years upon renewal of the CEO.

What is the co-relation between the age and roadworthiness of a vehicle?

Efficiency or roadworthiness of a vehicle is not determined by age. TCB ought to know that given Bhutan’s difficult terrain, some vehicles may be 10 years old but may not have run 30,000 KMs. TCB ought to know further that in outside countries - vehicles are driven hundreds of KMs a day - in Bhutan given our compactness and proximity, we barely drive 20 KMs in a day. In cities like New York and Tokyo, people drive over 400 KMs a day, to get to, and back, from work. Thus their MTBF would be 20-30 times shorter than those vehicles in Bhutan. By the way MTBF stands for: Million Times Before Failure. I am employing this term for want of a better one. This is a computer hard disk related terminology of yore. The older generation of computer hard disks use to be made that had moving parts - I am told that they are now solid state, meaning no moving parts. The hard disk manufacturers use to guarantee a hard disk to a set number of million spins before they break down.

So is it possible that the TCB consider the total mileage on the Mile-O-Meter, instead of the age of the vehicle? I am sure this is a much more educated route to take. I have seen the Toyota Land Cruiser short body that I use to drive in 1978/79 still going blazing guns!

I do not believe that the TCB’s consideration is environmental - if it were, all other vehicles in the country should be made to taste their acid. Why single out tourist carrying vehicles?

I do not think that the consideration is economic either - because if a country like Singapore that is many generations ahead of Bhutan in terms of economic competence, accepts that a vehicle can serve a maximum of 15 years, Bhutan certainly should go 20 - 30 years, given our level of economic development, by comparison.

If the TCB carries through their proposal, I believe that 70-80% of the vehicles used by the Bhutanese tour operators will need to be taken off the Bhutanese roads – because most of the vehicles used for transporting tourists are bound to be over 7 years old. Against the backdrop of the recently introduced ban on import of vehicles, replenishing 70-80% of the disallowed vehicles will mean direct conflict with the ban. Will the Finance Ministry allow that?

Even if the Finance Ministry allows it, who has the money to import vehicles costing few millions, for a business that everyone believes is on uncertain footing? Brought on by the pandemic, citizens are in a situation where they are unsure as to where their next meal is coming from.

Please have a care for the bleeding tourism industry - the industry does not need a hundred new rules instructing how its business should be run - I believe that the industry players are eons ahead of the TCB in how tourism business is to be conducted. The industry hungers for just one or two progressive policies that will help them set off on the road to recovery - after over two and half years of twiddling their thumbs, in hopeful anticipation of better times.

Monday, August 29, 2022

La Doog: A Dangerous Condition Known As: AMS | HAPE | HACE

This morning’s Kuensel carried an article that deals with the increase in cases of, what the Bhutanese call, “La Doog”. It is timely. There is total lack of understanding surrounding this deathly condition.


I had requested the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) to do a series on the subject – they agreed but I could not find a person with the knowledge as well as the Dzongkha language skill to speak on the subject.

Bhutanese people think that since we are mountain people, we will not be affected by La Doog – WRONG. International trekkers think that they have trekked in alpine regions in their own countries and that they can handle Bhutan’s altitudes – WRONG!!  One of Switzerland’s highest peaks - the Matterhorn, is only 4,478 Mtrs. By comparison, our Bonte-La above Jumolhari Base Camp towards Soe Yaktsa stands at 4,980 Mtrs.

Bhutanese people’s understanding of La Doog is so poor that I dedicated ten articles to the subject of sickness brought on by high altitudes. Please read them all at:


Classification of heights

Type of high altitude sicknesses and their symptoms


Friday, August 26, 2022

Contributing To The Transformation Initiative Of Bhutan's Tourism Industry

Bhutan ranks among the world’s top destinations for wilderness trekking. Some of our trekking routes are through complete wilderness, without any human habitation for days - something that few other destinations can boast of. We can be proud that we can offer treks that are unmatched experiences in total wilderness. That said, I fear that there is near total lack of competence to handle cases of medical emergency in the wilderness.



The mighty Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) that has morphed into a combination of regulator and implementer does not seem to think that there is a need for trekking tours to be regulated. They do not have rules that require trekking guides to be skilled in handling emergency cases in the wilderness. Even basic skills such as reading a GPS or altimeter or compass, or knowledge in handling high altitude related conditions is not a requirement to qualify as a trekking guide. I have not heard of the TCB conducting skilling trainings for trekking guides.

What is even more alarming is the fact that the recent paper floated by the TCB that lists a partial list of items to be carried on treks, the most important item is missing from the list - Emergency Medical Kit.

Rudimentary knowledge in First Aid and Emergency Medical Evacuation is essential for guides who are guiding high altitude treks. But I fear that this is not a requirement that is imposed by the TCB on trekking guides and tour operators conducting high altitude treks.

Fortunately, the Rotary Club of Thimphu is hoping to improve the situation. Initiated in 2019 during my tenure as the Club's Secretary, a collaborative project between the Rotary Club of Honolulu Sunset, Rotary Club of Thimphu and Khesar Gyalpo University of Medical Sciences of Bhutan (KGUMSB) will conduct a “Training for Trainers” training program in Thimphu. Five specialist doctors are due to arrive from USA to train a select number of people that will include: Trekking Guides, Senior Cultural Guides, Doctors at the KGUMSB and those at the Emergency Division of JDWNRH, including some members of the all embracing DeSuung.

The training is titled “Bhutan Wilderness Medicine Training Program”. The Rotary Club of Thimphu hopes to rope in the industry players such as GAB, ABTO and the TCB.

The funding for the Project had already been approved by The Rotary Foundation on 18th November 2021 but the project had to be suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the travel restrictions brought about by it. The training team comprising of 5 medical doctors are due to arrive Thimphu during November of this year, lead by:

Dr. Scott McIntosh, MD, MPH
Associate Professor, Division of Emergency Medicine, University of Utah
President, Wilderness Medical Society
Director, Wilderness Medicine Fellowship
Medical Director, Summit County EMS
Flight Physician & Associate Medical Director, AirMed

And

Rotarian Dr. James Ham, M.D., FACEP, FAWM
Immediate Past President, Rotary Club of Honolulu Sunset
Global Grants Chair, Hawaii Rotary District 5000
2021 Rotary International People of Action: Champions of Health
Emergency Physician, Straub Medical Center
Assistant Clinical Professor, University of Hawaii John A Burns School of Medicine

The training program hopes to create a pool of trainers who can continue the training within the country - to build capacity in Wilderness First Aid and Emergency Evacuation.

Monday, August 22, 2022

Bhutan’s Rotting Treasure-trove II

If some one were to ask me if Bhutan is in a state of scraping the barrel, I would say - we are not. If this question were to be repeated end next year, I wouldn’t know how to answer it. But there is no doubt that we are into tough times. And tough times call for tough decisions, and moving away from conventional logic that obviously hasn’t worked. It calls for diversification of thoughts – even more important, diversification of viewpoints.

The following Kuensel report of 10th October 2020 is indication that some diversification of thoughts had indeed come to pass. The fact that it has not been followed through in the past two years since, points to the fact that true to character, we remain Bhutanese to the core.

An encouraging Kuensel report dated October 2020 - that which remains buried and forgotten

We exported wood products worth Nu 0.35 billion in 2015 but imported over six times more wood worth Nu 2.60 billion. This for a country sitting atop a huge timber reserve is an indefensible act, almost bordering on criminal when viewed against the background of the many economic woes we face as a country and people.

An expanding and overstocked forest is a serious threat to biodiversity conservation and wildlife habitats, a cause for mega-fires, and is known to dramatically change hydrology (e.g. decrease groundwater recharge and stream flow). Further, economic impact of revenue from forestry is often felt most at the local level and is a great employment generator, thus inherently inclusive and green economy.

The hydropower revenue was Nu 20 billion (USD296 million) in 2016 which was 13.48 percent of GDP. Technically speaking, forestry has tremendous potential to be the bigger growth driver than hydropower.

Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel
Forest Analyst
April 16, 2018

Our own homegrown forest analyst Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel authored two brilliant papers in the Kuensel, related to the potential of our forests. Both the numbers and science behind his thoughts are rock solid. And yet, his brilliance remains largely ignored - although from the above Kuensel report, it appears to have triggered a “way forward” report by the Department of Forests. But indications are that the report remains shelved and gathering dust in some obscure corner of the Cabinet Secretariat.

Please read Dr. Phuntsho Namgyel’s thoughts at the following:



Punatsangchu Hydropower Project I is surely headed for total closure.

It is unlikely that Kholongchu Hydropower Project will ever happen, given so many factors that go against it.

Hydropower as a source to generate electricity is now old hat around the world - more efficient energy sources have edged out hydropower - as being more costly and environmentally destructive.

We should now look to our abundant forests to rescue us from economic doom. They have the potential to save us, while at the same time, help improve the quality of our forest stand.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Bhutan’s Rotting Treasure-trove I

When His Majesty the IVth Druk Gyalpo banned the harvesting of timber from our forests in 1979, I was the man about town to implement the ban. I was the head honcho at the Export Section of the Export Division of the Ministry of Trade, Industries and Forests. My section was charged with the responsibility to dispose off the timber logs/sawn lumber that became available when the ban came into effect. That year, sawn Blue Pine (Pinus wallichiana) blocks were sold across the border in Jaigaon at Nu.72.00 per cubic foot. The price for the same timber is currently fixed by the government at Nu.340.50 per cft.

Pile of Pine logs ready for the export market. The above stock photo shows the lumber from a well-managed forest stand - the boles are clean, even sized and pencil-straight. By comparison, our lumber would look severely gnarled and grotesque - through overstocking and lack of management, such as thinning.

Strangely, close to half a century since, there prevails a misconception that the act of banning the harvesting of timber from our forests was a conservation initiative. IT WAS NOT! In fact the term we employed those days was NOT ban – we knew it as “Nationalization of Timber”.

It was necessitated as a consequence of the wanton destruction caused to our forests - by the private logging contractors of the era, and as a result of the total irresponsibility and corruption among the custodians of our forests – the Department of Forests.

For the record – most of today’s rich and the upwardly mobile have their humble beginnings in timber and timber trade.

Another one for the record: when nationalization was contemplated to be implemented, the Department of Forests reported to the government that there may be about 30,000 cft. of sawn timber and logs in the hands of the private operators in the Western region - there was no NRDCL then. That grossly erroneous quantity was perceived to be a manageable quantity and thus the Export Division was charged with the responsibility to dispose off the stocks. We prepared to receive the nationalized timbers at a stockyard in Phuentsholing.

However, when finally the nationalized lumber started to arrive at Phuentsholing, the volume amounted to many hundred thousand cubic feet of timber - it was so overwhelming that the entire Phuentsholing Industrial Estate could not accommodate the stock. We created another stockyard above the Estate – that was not enough either. We then hired the open spaces around Norgay Cinema Hall – even that proved to be insufficient.

The problem was not limited to space to accommodate the illegal timbers – transporting them from the production centers in Thimphu, Haa and Paro to our stockyard in Phuentsholing was a bigger hurdle.

The problem: the whole of Bhutan did not have enough trucks capable of transporting the stock of timber that became available.

You can imagine the scale of corruption that may have existed then! The stock of illegal timbers that were held by the private operators was few hundred folds in excess of the official figure that the Department of Forests presented to the government.

There was no way we were going to be able to transport all the timbers that became available - the country did not have the carrying capacity. Thus, for the first and last time in the history of Bhutan - we opted to transport the timbers through the riverine route - we resorted to floating the timbers over and down the Wangchhu river! Bhutan imported skilled manpower from Jammu in North India for the job.

The ensuing disaster is another story to be told another day.

Timber – whether sawn or in log form is a perishable commodity – thus they need to be sold off in time before the rot sets in. But selling few hundred thousand cubic feet of timber - at one go - posed a danger of a different kind. Unfortunately, the rules in place then did not allow us to engage in direct selling. We proposed that we be allowed to sell through direct negotiations with select Indian importers, to enable us to maintain a level of price that we wanted. Our Ministry did not permit it - we were ordered to take the designated route - sale through auction. His Royal Highness, then the Trade Minister preferred to protect us: he preferred to spare us the axe of the Royal Audit - over the risk of lower prices for our stock of timber.

We finally fixed the minimum bid prices, and put the timbers on auction in Phuentsholing.

The ensuing disaster is yet another story to be told another day.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

One Small Step For FC Reserve - One Giant Leap for Environment

The announcement of a moratorium on import of vehicles is welcome news, but it falls far short of what is called for, if we are serious about combatting the plummeting foreign exchange reserve situation in the country. Rumors doing the round is that our foreign exchange reserve has fallen below the level mandated by the Constitution. That appears to be untrue, upon ascertaining from more dependable sources. According to a knowledgeable source, our reserve - which includes both third country currency as well as the Indian Rupee - stood at Nu.845.00 million at the end of last month - enough to cover imports of essentials for little over fourteen months.


Reuters reporting on Bhutan's foreign currency woes

Clearly it is a case of the government dithering on taking swift decisions, which is called for given the precariousness of the situation. They cannot be caught napping. They should have acted much earlier - when they became aware of the headwinds of doom blowing. Since no large-scale exports have been reported in the immediate recent past, the country may be inching closer to the proverbial red line, in terms of our foreign currency reserve.

But to be fair, the DNT government has not been found wanting where bold decisions were needed to be taken. This gingerly step of imposing a temporary moratorium on import of vehicles is not enough by far - but it is a step in the right direction, nonetheless. They now need to rein in the other villains - the importers of none-essential goods. For God’s sakes - why do we need to import cheap imitation branded goods, toilet papers, face tissue, biscuits, chocolates and cosmetics, against hard currency from places like Thailand, China and Vietnam? Shamefully, for a country that boasts of 71% forest cover, we imported Nu.3.2 billion worth of wood and wood products, while our own forest stand is rotting away and degrading the quality of our renewable natural resource, in the process causing loss of ground water, resulting in shortage of drinking water.

I have already written about the dark side of the import of none-essential goods - how it contributes to the falling foreign currency reserve - not just through outward remittances to pay for the imports, but as a consequence of the other more serious clandestine transections that are rumored to be happening - through the Hawala route. I think it is really simple to validate these rumors, if the government is serious about their intensions.

As I keep saying - let us not allow ourselves to arrive at a point where we have to say sorry because, by then, it will be too late.

The moratorium on vehicle imports will surely impact the business of the vehicle dealerships but I happen to know that most of the owners of the agencies that deal in vehicle imports are responsible people. For the common good, I know that they will rise above the situation and accept that each of us citizens have to contribute in different ways during times of difficulty – a small sacrifice by them will mean the world of difference to the much larger population that stand to loose lot more, if tough decisions are deferred.

The moratorium makes sense in two very meaningful ways - it stops the outflow of foreign currency to pay for the import of vehicles. It reduces the import of fossil fuel to power them. In the process, our doddering environment benefits.

The ugly truth that remains hidden from public knowledge is the state of Thimphu’s air and water quality. If the authorities dare conduct a test, we are likely to discover that our much touted “pristine environment” is a myth - I think we are worst than Beijing or New Delhi - for the simple reason that we are located in a narrow valley boxed in by high rise mountains, while Beijing and New Delhi are located in wide open plains. The following image of Thimphu valley was captured by me some 15 years ago - from Phajoding:

Thimphu valley swathed in a thick blanket of poisonous particulates. Imagine what we are breathing.
The image does not look like that of Thimphu - but it is. I have pointed out the statue of Buddha Dordenma with a red arrow to validate that the photo is indeed that of Thimphu valley.

You can see the thick blanket of poisonous particulates that are trapped and suspended over Thimphu valley. The situation would have deteriorated many folds since.

Thursday, August 18, 2022

The Bully On The Loose

Clearly the officials at the Thimphu Thromde (Thimphu City Corporation) seem to have lost their marbles. Failing that they are clueless as to why they want, or think they can, implement the rule of the color of roof paint.

Thimphu city: The bully rules the roost

First off, do they have the authority to impose such selective rules and regulations, as they fancy? I think the country does have a building and construction standards or codes. Is the matter relating to roofing colors a requirement specified in the standards? If not, what makes Thimphu Thromde think that they can impose their out-of-turn will as they choose? Isn't it necessary that such rules need to be passed by competent authorities, before they can be implemented?

Second, what is the rationale behind the choice of the colors red and green? What are the underlying considerations for the choice of these two colors?

Third, are there economic reasons for choosing these two colors, over others? Do they reflect heat so that the rooms under the roofs remain cool - translating into lower cost of cooling. Or, do the colors red and green absorb heat so that they provide greater warmth - resulting in lower heating cost? Even if there were, the homeowners have the right to decide what they want – aesthetics over economy or, vv.

Fourth, is the choice of paint based on some environmental considerations for the reason for which these colors are chosen over few thousand shades of other colors? We agree that dark colors reflect less heat into the atmosphere. Is that the reason? And, by the way, what shades of red and green?

Fifth, do the homeowners have a right of choice - as to what color they want to paint their roofs and homes, constructed with their own private money? Or have they forfeited that right and surrendered it to Thimphu Thromde?

Or, since the Thromde wants it – are they going to pay for the paint job? But even if they do pay, will the homeowners agree to a color choice that they do not fancy?

Sixth, today the construction industry of which the largest number is comprised of private homeowners, account for the highest cases of NPLs. Brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic activity in the country has been ground to a halt. The homeowners have a hard time repaying their loans and are forced to seek deferment of loan repayments. During such taxing times, the Thromde wants to add to their woe, by seeking to add to their financial burden?

Is this Thimphu Thromde’s contribution to the transformation exercise that is currently underway? If it is, I think we need to point out to them that this kind of transformation is something we do not need. It is NOT transformative – it is regressive!

In my view, other then the color yellow which has conventionally been associated with Dzongs and Lhakhangs – citizens should have the choice of what color they want to paint their roofs and walls.

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

You Live & Learn

Yesterday I went by the Royal Monetary Authority of Bhutan (RMA) in the hope of buying a Bhutanese non-circulating commemorative silver coin called the "Joao Cabral 300 Ngultrum" coin, supposedly issued in 1994. A friend in Portugal was desirous of buying the coin. The officers at the RMA were nonplused - they had never before seen the coin in their lives, and their official records did not list it! They offered the opinion that the coin may have been issued by the Bank of Bhutan or the Ministry of Finance who in the past use to issue bank notes and coins - before the establishment of the RMA in 1982 - although it took on the role of a Central Bank only in 1983.

I said that commemorative coins were issued only by the RMA - never by the Ministry of Finance or the Bank of Bhutan. The Joao Cabral coin is dated 1994 - meaning it has to have been issued by the RMA, if it was indeed issued by them.

The dubious Joao Cabral Silver 300 NGULTRUM Coin

So then the coin must be a fake - a spurious one. Well that is intriguing but not impossible - you may have read on this Blog about the fake Bhutanese stamps issued and sold to the international collectors, without the knowledge of Bhutan Post.


As I was about to exit the RMA, I remembered that I had a mutilated Nu.1,000.00 bank note in my purse. So I pulled out the bank note and asked the officer; “Where can I have this mutilated note exchanged?”.

The officer looked at the bank note and said; “This is not mutilated - this is a torn note. Mutilated notes are when there is a burn hole”.

Really? Torn is not considered mutilated???? Intriguing - but this is veering off into the by-lanes - let us stay on the main street - the Joao Cabral 300 Ngultrum Silver Coin.

Can it be that the coin is a fake? I went into a little research.

According to one website (https://de.ucoin.net/coin/bhutan-300-ngultrums-1994/?tid=89845) the coin was minted - 10,000 copies of it - at the Royal Mint located at Llantrisant, United Kingdom. I logged onto the website of The Royal Mint and searched for the history of the coin - the following is what was displayed when I hit the SEARCH button:

No Match - meaning the record of the coin's mintage is false

This coin was not obviously minted by the Royal Mint - leading me to conclude that the coin must be a fake. Further probing revealed that the dragon on the Cabral coin’s reverse was rendered without the jewels (Norbu) in its claws. Bhutanese always depict our dragons clasping Norbu in their claws. The Chinese, on the other hand, hardly ever depict their dragons with Norbu in their claws - as shown below.

The Bhutanese almost always depict the dragon with its claws clasping the Norbu

The Chinese show their dragons without the Norbu in their claws

It now becomes even more clear that this was a forgery job - if it was issued by the RMA I am sure they would have depicted a Bhutanese dragon with Norbu in their claws, and not a Chinese one, sans the Norbu.

Who is/was Joao Cabral?

He was one of the two earliest European visitors to Bhutan - the other who accompanied him was Father Estevao Cacella - they were both Portuguese Christian missionaries. They arrived Bhutan in 1626. They were on their way to Tibet - to found a Christian Mission there - which they did, in Shigatse.

The missionaries Joao Cabral and Estevao Cacella spent eight months in Bhutan and met Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal in Tango. Under the authority of the Zhabdrung, they even started a Churh in Paro where they tried to convert some Bhutanese into the Christian faith, without success. They left for Tibet in 1627.

Father Cacella died in Shigatse in 1630. Consequent upon the power struggle that erupted in Tibet during 1635, Father Cabral closed down the Mission and returned to India, where he died in Goa in 1669.

In all provability the report submitted by the two Portuguese Jesuits  - "The Relacao", dated 4th October 1627 - may be the very first accounts the Western world got to read about Bhutan and the Zhabdrung.

The two Jesuits presented many gifts to the Zhabdrung - one of which was the “Tob” - cannon, currently displayed at the National Museum in Paro.

My friend Carlos Gumero of Portugal spent months in Bhutan - researching for his doctoral thesis on the two Portuguese missionaries - the dissertation of which argued that their intensions were more warlike, and NOT religious!