Thursday, March 30, 2023

The National Airline May Soon Be Privatized!

One of the most recent rumors I heard is that the ball-breaker IMF will soon step in to bail out Bhutan. It is quite plausible - but that is not my worry. My worry is that among the first things they are set on doing is to privatize the government owned and operated Druk Air Corporation. That would be a total disaster! Unless the IMF’s restructuring team is yet again headed by a Singaporean, I believe that they will not see any merit in such a move - after all, Bhutan’s situation is pretty unique compared to most other economies.

Bhutan's national flag carrier - Druk Air

No denying that the Druk Air has been a problem in the national scheme of things - I have said so for years - that Druk Air needs to be shorn of their profit making mandate, that they need to fulfill their responsibilities as a national flag carrier. If they were to be privatized, it would be a disaster. In fact, they need to be delinked from the DHI and put under the social sector - as an apparatus of service  - to complement the national aspirations for a robust economic activity.

As a national entity that carries the national flag on their wings, their responsibility ought to transcend profit making. They cannot make profit - it is not humanly possible given the limitations under which they have to operate. But they can certainly help numerous other sectors make profit. Sadly, the opposite is true - the airline is being an impediment in the path of many.

The Druk Air is not a taxi service - they cannot behave like one. They are a national airline of the Kingdom of Bhutan. The least they can do is behave responsibly and show a level of dependability that is expected of a national flag carrier who has the distinction of being the only carrier that can don the national colors on their wings. At the least, they have to remember that whole lot of tourism players depend on their reliability and dependability.

What is the idea of changing their flight schedules and timings as if they were running a charter service? Isn’t a regular airline required to have a pre-planned program of flights that operate on a regular basis and on a pre-planned, published schedule? Once declared and published, how can they just change as and when they fancy? Don’t they realize that others work and plan based on their published schedules?

I understand that some one is already suing the Druk Air for their irresponsible behavior. I hope it is true.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Conversion of Hotels: Abandoning Tourism

It is sad - the recent news in the media that a large number of hotel owners are contemplating converting their properties for use as spaces for some other purposes - other than as hotel accommodations, for which they were originally built.

This is a case of the child forsaking the cradle within the confines of which he/she found comfort and safety during his/her formative years. There is no gain saying the pain the owners must feel - but clutching at every strand of straw within grasp is what is called for - given the painful times we are going through.

But will the financial institutions allow the conversions? After all, it is a complete deviation from the stated purpose for which the financing was extended to the hotel owners. May be YES – I mean, if this is the only way to improve the NPL situation in the country, why not? If they have to depart from convention for the sake of improving recovery, they have no choice but to do it. If the financial institutions have to save themselves from imminent collapse, they have to make a shift from their customary rigid, unrelenting posture.

But it is still sad. It has taken us many decades to arrive here. Government policies have been tweaked to create enabling conditions to upscale capacity. Financial institutions had thrown wide open their coffers to lend money to aspiring hoteliers. The government had blatantly encouraged the hotel sector to upscale and upgrade their properties - with veiled threats that if they did not do so, they would be left in the lurch. In heeding the clarion call of the government, both old and new players in the tourism sector went headlong into expanding capacity and upgrading facilities - in anticipation of a booming tourism business. Tour operators invested millions in acquiring buses and improving competence.

Then, after all that – BOOM!! …. Less said the better.

The greater tragedy in this calamitous reversal of fortune is not so much the monumental losses the people are straddled with; hundreds of dreams shattered, and thousands of jobs lost - in its wake ushering in an era of unprecedented exodus of outflow of human capital. Even worst, we are now at the verge of being thrown many decades back in time - dismantling many decades of painful building of tourism infrastructure; causing disenchantment to thousands of industry professionals who are left without direction or earning.

Tourism still holds boundless promise for Bhutan - it is the mother of all mothers inside whose accommodating belly many other industries foment and nurture. The government needs to act fast - before we enter the phase of no return. We do not have the time or the money to rebuild what we are about to lose, that which was built over many decades.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

An Event For The History Books

Now folks, tell me, what is there not to love about the following image? It is truly unparalleled and groundbreaking - a stuff for the history books:

The happy convergence of GOOD and EVIL - Buddhist monks happily performing the inaugural ceremony of the official launch of high-end recreational fishing in Tsirang - proof that the men of God now sanctifies fishing as an act condoned by Buddhism.

The launching of the high-end recreational fishing in Tsirang and Dagana Dzongkhags (Districts) was conducted with traditional fanfare and pomp - replete with red-robbed monks murmuring holy chants for success and good luck. The Tsirang Divisional Forest Office’s Facebook page announced the event in following words (Do not miss out on the wrongly spelt name of the fish):

“With the amendment of Forest & Nature Conservation Rule 2021, the Department of Forests and Park Services has opened High-end Recreational Fishing in the country. For more sustainable and recreational fishing purpose, the rivers of Bhutan are categorized into Trout water and Masheer water. The High-end recreational fishing site for Golden Mahseer zone II, Sunkosh Stretch - Punatsangchu was launched on 13th March 2023. Tsirang Forest Division in collaboration with Nature Conservation Division, Department of Tourism and Dagana Forest Division initiated the launching program. During the launching, 4 International Angler in collaboration with Bhutanese anglers started the High-end recreational fishing from Sunkosh river stretch. The High-end recreational fishing is exclusively for catch and release purpose only.”

Bhutan’s brand new high-end tourism product is intended to draw in the global game-fishing community, by the hoards. Sadly, that will have to remain a pipe dream - unless the Bhutanese bureaucrats learn to shed their decades old mentality of framing rules to restrict - rather than to facilitate. The Forest and Nature Conservation (Amendment) Rules and Regulations of Bhutan, 2021 recently released by the DoFPS is one such example. It is clear that the government has, yet again, tapped into the wrong pool of minds.

One particular provision contained in the rules explicitly prohibits fishing for the star attraction - the prized Golden Mahseer - during a period and in areas where/when they are known to be most productive. Another provision reeks of self-interest and selfishness - it is clear that the rule has been influenced by some interest groups.

The mighty Golden Mahseer (Tor putitora) hooked and landed at Changchey, Tsirang on 29th October, 2020. For the world angling community elsewhere in the world, a Golden Mahseer this size is .... well, stuff of dreams.

It is hoped that the DoFPS will see through their folly and remedy the flaws in the rules, in order that the objectives of introducing game fishing in the country serves its intended purpose. I, on my part, will be attempting to contribute to the national cause, by sharing my experience of over forty years of fishing the Bhutanese waters for Golden Mahseer and Brown Trout, with the relevant agency in the government. So far there has been no indication that the government is receptive to sound counsel from home-grown talent pool - but citizens have to do our duty, and keep trying, nonetheless.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Tour Report By A Tour Group

NOTE TO READERS: This one is going to be a long one, in addition to the fact that it is not a very interesting subject for most. But given the painful times Bhutan's tourism industry is going through currently, I thought that perhaps there may be some pointers in how I do things. Time is here for us all tourism players to make up for the government's utter failures. We need to give our extra best!


Hi Professor and Katie,

Thank you for your mail --- and I am glad to hear that you have landed home safely. Amazing that you can still write such a long and exhaustive mail, even after such a long and continuous journey spanning tens of hours.

Thank you for your thoughts on your trip to Bhutan. I truly value it - not only that it gives me an idea of what visitors like and prefer, but also to dispel any misconceptions that we might have - given that we are in a cross-cultural situation and there will always be beliefs that can be wrongly conceived. Thus, truthful feedbacks can help correct those misconceptions. As you say, your feedback will help me better serve my future guests.

Binturong - one of Bhutan's rare Mammals. It was sighted on the road between Tingtibi to Dakphai in Zhemgang on 15th March, 2023. The mammal is listed as "Vulnerable" in the IUCN's Red List.  The Binturong is the only living species in the genus Arctictis.

I am glad that my team and I have been able to give you some semblance of an enjoyable experience in Bhutan. We do try our best - to attempt to give you the very best of experience. But we cannot always get it right 😢. We seek your forgiveness for our failings - we hope that there have not been too numerous.

Yes, I too am amazed, and happy that you have been able to sight your famous Binturong
😍Wonders never cease!!! If I have learnt anything in my 69 years of life, it is that one should never write-off anything - everything is a possibility.

I am glad that you think the accommodation and food we served you were PERFECT – except in one location. That has always been at the core of my worries in the provision of service to my guests. I have heard of so many complaints from tourists on the poor quality and limited variety of food across the whole of Bhutan. But like I told you during one of our casual conversations - that may be because most of the tourists are treated to buffet meals by their hosts. I personally abhor the idea of serving buffet meals - it means that you are made to eat something that is not of your own choice. I believe that people must eat meals of their choice – thus my strict instruction to my guide is that guests should be served A-La-Carte meals at all times. NEVER BUFFETs!!!

You may be happy to know that I have told my guide that the location at which you were not entirely happy - should be off the list of properties we will use in future. As you have seen yourself, I always inspect the properties I intend to use for my guests - but I seem to have failed to fathom the failure of this one property.

I think I did mention to you at one point that Wi-Fi access in rooms is generally said to be poor. I am told that the Internet connectivity is much better and faster around the Reception area. For the life of me, I cannot understand why this should be so. I believe that it is because the hotel owners take a very casual attitude towards the problem. If they can make it fast enough in the Reception area, they can make it the same in the rooms. I suppose this is one of the enduring peculiarities of the Bhutanese people, that is beyond understanding.

Thank you - I am glad that you did not find us wanting in the provision of logistics. Thank you for a PERFECT rating.

I am glad that you found the trip to Taktsang and Chhimi Lhakhang worth your while. I would have certainly dissuaded you from making the visits - but for the fact that the government decided to roll back their policy on monument fees, in time. Consequent upon the change in policy of the government, my company will absorb the fees - guests will not be asked to pay the monument visitation fees. Because I believe that the high SDF government is charging is more than painful already.

I am glad that you liked the experience. I agree - we should promote it as an opportunity to sight some unique shore birds. The problem though is that during summer months when the rivers swell to about five times that which you have seen, the rafting approaches the class of white-water rafting and, thus, the experience is of a different kind. Also during the summer months, the migratory birds can no longer be sighted since they would have gone back to their summer roosting grounds.

Indeed!!!! That is why Bhutan is known as one of the Ten Global Biodiversity Hotspots of the world. Our avifauna multiplicity is phenomenal, as you have already experienced.

In the past Bhutan was called the Birding Capital of the world, by the world birding community, including the opportunity to experience some truly stunning alpine wilderness. Unfortunately, with the recent introduction of US$200.00 per person per day as SDF, these long duration unmatched High Value tourism experiences have been rendered untenable - it is sad indeed!
But we tourism stakeholders are all praying hard that the government would realize the folly of their act and think of a reasonably acceptable SDF rate. Most of Bhutan’s economic activity hinges on tourism, a fact that would have dawned on them by now.

I am glad you liked it. Unfortunately the only animal you saw was the Assamese Macaque - but glad to know that the profuse of birdlife you sighted more than made up for the lack of animal sightings.

I am thrilled that you found the experience in Tingtibi “super super beautiful and the camping by the river was tops. Highly recommend”. Unfortunately for you, it was the wrong season - otherwise I would have treated you to the unique experience of fishing for the king of the freshwater fish - the endangered Golden Mahseer. I am among the country’s top record holders of the fish - at 27 KGs. Imagine the thrill of trying to reign in a maddened monster on a death run!

Indeed Phobjikha is my most favorite place of visit - particularly during the winter months. The place is almost surreal, with the cold, dense mist suspended in mid-air - it makes for a perfect picture. Sadly the time of your visit was past the Black-necked Cranes season, so the allure of the place was lessened by that much. Perhaps next time - there is always a next time.

Lastly, THANK YOU for your generous tip of Nu.10,000.00 you left for me. That was very kind of you. However, I would like to inform you that I passed on the whole tip to your guide. I believe that it is the service team who deserve, if they do, any tip from my satisfied guests. As the owner of the host company I am expected to generate my profits from the business operation - not from tips. Tips are earned by the service team. I gave the whole tip to the guide because the driver is the owner of the TOYOTA Prado that he was driving you in. He is already an economically competent person - he does not need any additional tips - in addition to that which you already gave him, separately.
Also I am more than happy for the GOODWILL earned from you two. That, to me, is the most generous tip any tour operator can receive - it is more than any monetary profits.
Bye and take care - I hope that we will continue to keep in touch. I am honored to be in touch with people of such rarified sciences such as those in which two of you are engaged. Bhutan is fortunate that we can attract people of your caliber.


Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Accepting Mistake Is Good

I am currently traveling on business so I am not able to write an elaborate and effusive eulogy on the government’s recent roll back of their policy on the unwarranted hike in the monument fees. It was a shameful and insensitive thing to do, particularly after the atrocious increase in the SDF to US$200.00 from the earlier US$65.00. In the face of unrealistic increase in the SDF, the government should have, instead, done away with the monument fees entirely - on the grounds that the increase in SDF would more than cover any and all costs towards maintaining the monuments.

One down! Many to go!

This is a case of the government admitting that they had made a mistake - this is good. Instead of being on an ego trip, it is wise to eat humble pie and do what is right - remedy the mistakes. As I keep saying, it would be too late by the time you say sorry … saying sorry does not resurrect a dead man. If you realize a mistake has been made, correct it before it is too late.

For the foot soldiers of the tourism sector, it has been near impossible to explain the rationale behind charging atrociously high monument fees - in addition to having to pay SDF of US$200.00.

There are many other policy absurdities with the post-pandemic Tourism Policy 2022. We need to correct them as well …. And we need to do it PRONTO.  Soon is not soon enough. Any further delay may be too late to save Bhutan from the economic woes that are already evident.

The relevance of tourism to Bhutan’s economic vitality has been sufficiently proven in the aftermath of the introduction of the ill-conceived tourism policy.

As I keep saying over and over again, making mistakes is not a problem - the problem is when we refuse to accept to learn from them, for the better. Great things are achieved through humility.

Like someone commented on one of my blogs, if citizens are wailing, it is akin to a baby crying out for attention of his/her parents. Unfortunately, the first reaction of the parent is most often to see if the baby had wet his/her diapers - it is rarely to see what the need of the child is. First thought of the parent is that the child must have done something wrong to be kicking up a ruckus.

Remember - babies wail because their needs have been ignored - not because they peed in their diapers.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

The Terminal Lure of Oz

Twice before on this blog I wrote of the need for monitoring and regulating the overwhelming outflow of Bhutanese, in particular, to Australia. I even suggested that someone should visit Australia and speak to the Bhutanese diaspora there. The Bhutanese exodus to that country is an abnormal phenomenon, implication of which few Bhutanese have stopped to ponder about.

When I was told that even people who own buildings in Thimphu have chosen to migrate to Australia, it dawned on me that the pursuit of livelihood cannot be the sole reason why people chose to abandon homes and families, to travel across the seven seas - in search of whatever they hunger for.

Dreams are lived when you are asleep.

You do not need to risk the perils of the unknown and the untested to make a living - for the willing, opportunity and livelihood are staring at your faces at every corner you turn.

We are a society numbed by a century of Kidu dole out - I am not sure that we are prepared to take on the unknown and the unfamiliar. We are willing to blame the whole world for our own shortcomings - we believe that the world owes us a living and that it will wait for us forever. Such a mental disposition will not find acceptance among other societies. We need to change - but the reality is that that change will not come soon enough, even if it does, eventually.

For a while I was under the impression that the exodus was a systematized affair conducted with planning and foresight. The recent reports of woe emerging from Australia tells me that it is not so - that it is a case of the deaf shadowing the blind. I think people have been victims of the dream merchants and the carpetbaggers.

For those who are due to make the journey in the coming weeks and months, it is not too late to reassess the situation and correct course before it is too late. It appears that the greenery down there is rather prickly - not the stuff of your dreams.

But my bigger worry is something else though. What if Australia suffers a devastating natural calamity brought on by global warming? What if Australia is overwhelmed by a deadly pandemic, the likes of COVID-19 or some other deadly brand new virus?

It is my belief that outside of Bhutan, Australia has the largest population of Bhutanese. Trust me, a catastrophe in Australia will cause shock waves in Bhutan - the likes of which will dwarf that of the COVID-19. The financial and human tragedy will be simply immeasurable!

Think of the financial investment that has gone behind the exodus. You get the picture.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

On The Wings Of The Dragon - VIII

Hi Yeshey,
I have decided that I cannot afford Druk Air fares Delhi/Paro – not particularly when we are four of us flying. They are costing me US$ 340.00 per person – one way. It is way too expensive for me. I have decided to fly through Delhi to Bagdogra and from there by land to Bhutan. I will be asking your friend travel agent to rearrange the travel itinerary accordingly.

C U soon

A good friend is visiting Bhutan this month with his family of four. The recent changes in tourism policy is so unfriendly that I did not consider it courteous to handle the trip myself - thus I requested a tour operator friend to arrange the visit. It is best that my friend negotiates the trip cost with an unknown operator - I just don’t have the heart to start quoting the numbers.

But it turns out that I am not the only one losing business - apparently the Druk Air too is.

Fortunately, my friend did not cancel his trip to Bhutan on the grounds that the airfare was too high - he opted instead to take a more strenuous route to visit the country. Others in his place may have very well canceled the trip, entirely.

An example of creative marketing - a calculated, workable gamble. GENIUS minds at work!

The question here is: Is it possible that this may now be a routine thing? Is it possible that many Bhutan-bound tour groups are now diverting air travel to airlines and routes not operated by the Druk Air? Is it possible that the Druk Air’s high airfare may be contributing to loss of revenue for the National Flag Carrier?

As I said, it is simply impossible for Druk Air to operate profitably as a commercial entity - not given their carrying capacity, not given the limited number of routes they serve, and definitely not given the disproportionate administrative cost they have to incur to keep the operation afloat. In any event, the creation of Druk Air was a statement of nationhood - not an enterprise of profit. The only way for them to make profit is by charging exorbitant fares - which, unfortunately, as we can see, results in loss of traffic.

So do some real math - learn from the Honkies - abandon the impossible and the narrow institutional interest. Instead, serve a national interest - be the National Carrier that you are - support the tourism business - a national interest initiative.

What Druk Air loses in profits can easily be recouped a thousand fold - in profits made elsewhere. The Druk Air's endeavors should be directed at minimizing losses - not towards making profits.