| Karma Yuden, Thimphu
The government’s announcement that royalty for tourists visiting eastern Bhutan will be waived off, for three years has been welcomed by the people. Though, tourists visit some parts of eastern Bhutan, yet the number is very low. While it is expected that inflow of tourists to eastern Bhutan would accelerate economic development, generate employment and reduce rural-urban migration, it is easier said than done.
2016 saw an unprecedented arrival of tourists, with 209,570 visitors, which includes regional and internationals arrivals. This is an increase of 35% compared to 2015. The international arrivals recorded an increase of 35% with regional recording 50% growth over the previous year. Of this, 54,600 international leisure tourists arrived here, which is an increase of 11.9 % from 2015. Reports from the Annual Report Bhutan Tourism Monitor 2016 show that the government generated an income of USD 73.74 million, an increase of four percent from 2015.
However, the main regions visited have hardly changed with Paro and Thimphu taking 27 and 26 % of tourists respectively. Dollar paying tourists visiting eastern Bhutan have always been less.
While the government has done its bit, the responsibility to increase tourists arrivals in eastern Bhutan should be a joint action, between the Tourism Council of Bhutan and the people of eastern Bhutan themselves. It may be early or overconfident to say that tourists will visit the eastern dzongkhags. Nonetheless, interests of tourists blend with what eastern Bhutan has to offer, especially in terms of culture. In 2016, 86 percent of tourists came to see cultural sites.
While eastern Bhutan is one of the least explored regions of the Kingdom, it has numerous tourist sites, dating back to the times of Guru Padmasambhava. Gomkora, Chorten Kora, Aja Ney, Sengye Dzong are just few cultural and religiously sites. Tsechus of eastern Bhutan are unique, with unique mask dances performed. Eastern Bhutan also is home to the seat of the Wangchuck Dynasty.
Other cultural products include the college of traditional arts in Trashiyangtse. Lhuntse is home to Bhutan’s queen of handicrafts (Kishuthara) and eastern Bhutan produces some of the best handicraft and wood products.
Ecological, the Kharungla National Park is home to hundreds of birds. Floral wealth is also massive, making it a botanical garden. The potentials for rafting are promising and there are parts of eastern Bhutan, where medieval structures still stand.
Opportunities come along with challenges. And there are quite a few, mostly concerning infrastructure and the hospitality industry. The six districts in the East have only 22 hotels. Most do not fall in the star category. Though all parts of the region have road access, the conditions of the roads are bad, which may deter tourists from making a second visit. However, respite comes in the form of domestic flights and helicopters. Establishment of the Yongphula domestic airport and operation of helicopter services would provide the much required impetus for travelling.
Other aspects that require promotion are the opening of trekking paths and introducing social festive like the Black Necked Crane Dance. Promoting festivals to enhance eastern Bhutan tradition is also one of the most important things. Eastern Bhutan has such varieties of festivals that merely one would not be able to sum up the diversity of culture and tradition. These festivals do add color and light when it comes to defining tourism in eastern dzongkhag. These should be made more popular and tourist friendly to offer a great eastern Bhutan experience to the travelers.
Meanwhile, tour operators point out the shortage of hotels to accommodate guests. If the people of the east did not venture into the hospitality industry, it is because they saw no returns, unlike counterparts of the west and south.
The lifting of royalty is indeed a blessing for tour operators, businessman, people of the east and tourists, too. It will benefit all stakeholders.