| Karma Yuden, Thimphu
Once a branded ‘hooligans’, a group of young boys in Panbang in Zhemgang, are budding entrepreneurs and trained rafters today.
Like any other usual story, they dropped from schools, went seeking jobs, snubbed for low qualification and lack of job expereince, came back to village, and got into socially undesirable activities. They were better known for their cacophonic behaviors until the day commenced a white water rafting business.
Today, under the banner of River Guides of Panbang (RGP), they operate a community based eco-tourism initiative. And it is the most lucrative business activity in the region.
This group venture has nine young and highly trained rafters and now receives at least 200 clients, mostly tourists, every year. Although they are still confronting shortage of funds to keep themselves afloat but their business has gained momentum.
“It is improving slowly. Number of tourist seeking our service is on gradual rise. I think we can do brisk business in near future once we procure all the facilities required for rafting and related adventures.” said general manager of RGP, Ugyen.
They charge Nu 9,000 per raft per trip for tourists and Nu 7,000 for locals. They also offer other adventures such as kayaking, bird watching, trekking and biking.
“But at the moment, we don’t have all the equipment and required facilities. We are looking for donors and exploring possible financial aids from financial institutions.” said Ugyen.
It has been rough sail for them to come this far.
“Comprehending the burgeoning tourism industry in the country and also understanding rising unemployment problem amongst our youth in the country, we collectively decided to get ourselves engage in some productive activities, primarily focusing on some tour operating activities. Since our village is situated along a river basin, we thought establishing a white-water rafting company would be worth-while,” said Dorji Wangchu, a member and co-founder.
Grappling with acute capital shortage, many a time they almost give up the project. Cash-strapped young men, all coming from humble families, took years to materialize their plan.
“With infrastructural development pace at zenith and considering our pristine natural beauty, flanking with our rich culture and tradition, we always knew there is a huge scope of tourism business. But we had not a penny to commence,” said the general manager.
They started to seek financial aids from all possible sources but only Bhutan Foundation came forth for their rescue initially.
“Bhutan foundation provided us with a small raft along with gears but none of us had undergone any sort of rafting training,” recalls Ugyen.
They went to Phunakha and attended rafting training for a brief period. With some basic skills, they came back and started to raft along Mangdechu and Drangmechu in their locality to chisel and enhance their rafting skills before going commercial.
“For not being well trained, most of our clients refused to raft with us in the beginning. Thus, we had to again seek support from Bhutan Foundation for our training. Then some of us were sent to Nepal to raft with world class rafters,” added Ugyen.
They were put to test a few years ago when a boat ferrying around 18 people capsized in the upstream of Mangdechu River. Since then, their service got highly acclaimed.
According to another member, Thinley, he is happy with whatever little he earns from this joint business.
“Sometimes, I earn around Nu 20,000 a month in the peak season and that is fairly a good amount here. I firmly believe that need of the hour is the growth of our company. If we can do well, we will train all those young unemployed young boys and girls, and recruit them,” he said.
Over the year they have diversified their business. Today, the group renders kayaking, bird watching, and mountain biking services.
“We also have an eco-lodge constructed in a typical Khengpa style which houses our guests,” said Dorji Wangchu.
As the tour season begins, the boys are busy catering and providing their services. “We have only four to five months to work and that is during winter and spring season. Summer is total off-season and thus, we have to remain idle,” said Dorji Wangchu.
Thus, the families of the boys have to sustain for rest of the years from what they earn in winter.