Radio gaga

A52JF

Tourists visit Bhutan for many reasons. Most do so to catch a glimpse of the last Shangri la, that is, to experience our unique culture and enjoy our pristine environment.

But many tourists visit our country for specialized purposes, and because those purposes can be fulfilled here more so than in any other country in the world. For instance, tourists visit us to do the arduous Snowman Trek, ride the treacherous Drangmechhu, or complete the grueling Tour of the Dragon. Enthusiasts pay to look for rare butterflies, catch a glimpse of stunning birds, or soak in the beauty of the blue poppy. And experts visit us to enjoy our stunning textiles, wonder at our intricate thangkas, or photograph our breathtaking dzongs.

Some have come all the way here simply to meditate. And, given the opportunity, many visitors would willingly blow up their life savings to fish the legendary mahseer, scale our virgin peaks, or safari in Manas.

Yes, we’ve been endowed with more than our fair share of unique tourism products. And most of us think we know all of them. We don’t.

Yesterday, for example, I met Iain Haywood and learnt about another special reason why tourists are willing to pay big money to visit our country. Mr Haywood, from England, is a ham radio operator and is on a DX-pedition to Bhutan. That means that he’s here primarily to operate his amateur radio. And for that he’s arrived with, and already set up, his aerial and other equipment to receive and transmit radio signals.

So why does Mr Haywood find our country so interesting? Because there are very few amateur radio operators in Bhutan. And because, as such, ham radio operators all over the world would jump at the opportunity to hook up with a radio signal originating from Bhutan.

That’s why Mr Haywood, who’s been licensed by BICMA to use the call sign A52JF, has not left his hotel room in Olathang, Paro, since he checked in two days ago. But by the time I met him yesterday, he was already enjoying a “pile up”, a position of privilege in which ham radio operators rush to connect with him. And by that time, he had already logged about 400 “conversations”, or data exchanges, with operators from Europe, Asia and Africa. His goal: 2,000 conversations in five days followed by a two-day trip to Punakha! His dream: to return to Bhutan to do a “summits on the air”, that is to operate his ham radio from our high peaks.

Other ham radio enthusiasts have also visited Bhutan. And they, like Mr Haywood, used the services of Yeshey Dorji, Bhutan’s national operator, to organize their special tours.

I’m surprised at the amount of trouble amateur radio operators will go to advance their hobby. But I’m glad that that interest translates to tourism and, more importantly, goodwill for Bhutan.

Today, incidentally, is World Radio Day.

Open invitation by Haa

Your invitation

Have you been to Haa?

Chances are you haven’t. You haven’t been to Haa, because you probably didn’t have any work there – you didn’t have the reason to go. And you probably haven’t been there, because, like most people, you think that the journey from Thimphu to Haa is long and arduous.

But there’s good news. If you haven’t been to Haa, you now have good reason to go there. This weekend – that’s on the 9th and 10th of July – Haa Dzongkhag, along with the Tourism Council of Bhutan, are organizing the Haa Summer Festival to showcase Haa’s “rich alpine flower, folklore and culture.” You can download information on the festival from the ABTO website.

By the way, it takes under three hours to drive from Thimphu to Haa. The journey is beautiful – you’ll travel through several villages, and along pine forests, meadows and buckwheat fields as you make your way to Ap Chundu’s protectorate.

But if you wish, you could also bicycle to Haa. TCB has organized a bike race from Chunzom to Haa via Paro and Chelela on the 9th of July. That should be interesting, especially the ride from Bondey (which is at 2,200 meters) to Chelela (3,800 meters).

 

River potential

alternate hydro power

National Geographic has rated rafting on the Drangme Chhu – from the Trashigang Bridge to the Royal Manas Park – as one of the 25 Best New Trips for 2010.

But it’s not just the Drangme Chhu. Every one of our major river systems provides some of the world’s best rafting experiences. Dave Allardice of Ultimate Descents says that our rivers are:

A gigantic staircase rising from the Indian border to the high Himalayas of Tibet, the soaring peaks of Bhutan are an untapped treasure house of whitewater. The rivers are powerful and challenging.

And the National Geographic calls them:

A spillway for Himalayan snow and ice that roils into turquoise Class IV and V rapids through sheer granite walls.

So impressed were the editors of National Geographic Traveler magazine that they also included the Drangme Chhu decent as one of the world’s top 50 Tours of a Lifetime.

All this is good news.

But the good news will not last long. In fact, it will barely last two years. By 2012, construction on the 1800 MW Kuri-Gongri hydropower project will begin at the confluence of the Kuri Chhu and the Drangme Chhu. And further upstream, on the Kholong Chuu, construction on a 486 MW project will also commence in 2012.

So if you want to experience what the National Geographic is raving about, head to the Drangme Chhu … before 2012.

Photo credit: Bio Bio Expeditions

Namrita Khandelwal

Chhophyel, commenting on my previous post: “OL, I am glad that McKinsey’s proposal to liberalize tourist tariff is finally out the window.”

McKinsey and Company is charging the government 9.1 million dollars in consulting fees. Add to that travel, living, per diem and other expenses, and the final tab, by some estimates, could exceed 14 million dollars! That’s a lot of money.

So it’s amazing that we must feel a sense of relief every time their proposals get shot down. Their first proposal to go was about increasing annual tourist arrivals to 250,000. Then it was tourist tariff liberalization. Now their proposal to mandate all hotels catering to tourists to upgrade to at least a 3 Star category is already coming under attack.

True, McKinsey are only consultants. Their job is to recommend. And it’s up to the government whether or not to accept those recommendations.

But who are these consultants? It turns out that McKinsey’s first consultant for tourism was Namrita Khandelwal, who worked with the TCB for six months. I googled “Namrita Khandelwal”, and the only relevant results I got were Ms Khandelwal’s own entries on Facebook and Linkedln.

Namrita Khandelwal, it turns out, is barely 28 years old. She got a bachelors degree in economics in 2001, completed her MBA in 2003, and studied for an MPA from 2006 to 2008.

So Ms Khandelwal graduated in 2008. And by the next year, in 2009, she was in Bhutan, at the TCB, as a McKinsey consultant, recommending policy.

Now I have nothing against Ms Khandelwal. But I’m left wondering why McKinsey would have allowed a recent college graduate to represent them in Bhutan. And, more importantly, left wondering how our government could have accepted Namrita Khandelwal.

Accountability matters

The government is yet to issue an official statement rescinding the prime minister’s executive order of 13 November 2009 that liberalized tourist tariffs.

Meanwhile, a big majority of the people (57%) who took our poll think that the prime minister should be held accountable for trying to liberalize the tourist tariff. 26% held TCB accountable. And only 17% blamed McKinsey.

I agree with the results of our poll. No matter what, if any, consultations led to the big shift in tourism policy, ultimately it was the cabinet, particularly the prime minister, who approved the tariff liberalization. And who signed the executive order to that effect.

But what about TCB? Well, they are civil servants. And, as professionals, they will advise the government. But, they cannot force their decisions on the government. On the other hand, they, as civil servants, will defend and justify the decisions of their political masters.

And McKinsey? They may be a huge multinational company. And the world’s most famous consultants. But they are just that, consultants.

Accountability

Scapegoat

The Scapegoat

The Tourism Council of Bhutan, it seems, has been made the scapegoat for spearheading the Government’s policy to liberalize tourist tariffs. Several of the people who attended last Wednesday’s meeting with the PM blamed TCB for not having consulted the stakeholders sufficiently, and for not having briefed our head of government properly.

But was it really mainly TCB’s fault? Or were they, in fact, merely trying their best, as civil servants, to obey the Executive Order, signed by the PM, of their political masters of the day? And was it McKinsey who, in reality, sold the idea, directly to the PM, without consulting enough stakeholders in the tourism sector?

Our poll asks who should be held accountable for trying to liberalize tourist tariffs.

Flip-flop

I’m happy that the Government has revoked its decision to liberalize tourist tariffs. And that it has decided instead to increase the minimum tourist tariff to US$ 250 per night from 2011 onwards. Liberalizing tourist tariffs would have undermined Bhutan’s valuable brand image and affected our economy and society significantly.

But I’m alarmed at how the Government changed its decision. Just one meeting with stakeholders and the Prime Minister decides, during that meeting itself, that liberalizing tourist tariffs is not such a good idea. Just a simple show of hands of those present at the meeting, and the PM decides to increase the minimum tourist tariff. Just like that, the most important provision of the PM’s Executive Order is rescinded.

Obviously I’m satisfied with the final outcome of the recent meeting. But I can’t help wondering how our government takes important decisions. Did, for example, the PM fully understand the issues before signing the 13 November Executive Order into “immediate effect”? And, did the PM consider those issues again, carefully and thoroughly, before reversing his decision?

It’s important to know that our government does not act arbitrarily. And, that it is not fickle-minded.

Missing incentives

M.I.A

Two months ago, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Information and Communication, and the Tourism Council of Bhutan signed “performance compacts” with the Prime Minister. The contracts outlined important work that the agencies would do during the next three years, and set specific targets that they would have to achieve.

Some countries – India, France, Kenya, and Malaysia are examples – have used performance contracts successfully to improve the overall performance of government agencies. And any practice that improves efficiency, accountability and transparency in our government must be welcome.

But for the contracts to work, the targets must first be realistic. And they must be achievable. The TCB’s target of “attracting 100,000 ecological and culturally conscious tourists” is unrealistic and impossible. In 2009, only 23,480 tourists visited Bhutan. To quadruple it in three years is farfetched, especially since the Government has also mandated that all hotels catering to tourists must have at least a 3-star rating.

Setting achievable targets is important. But it is not sufficient. Adequate incentives must also be provided for achieving the targets. And, as far as I know, the performance compacts that were signed did not offer any incentives.

To be sure, the Prime Minister’s incentive is clear: votes. So he would obviously want the “compact” signatories to deliver.

But what about the officials, the civil servants? What’s in it for them? Why would TCB officials work four times harder if they can’t see any immediate reward?

Mass tourism

Liberal guests

A recent entry, which was basically a reproduction of the opposition party’s Press Release on the Government’s tourism policies, generated a lot of comments. As of now there are 44 comments, the last of which belongs to “10000eyes” asking:

OL: do you read all the comments made by the blogger…or you just glance on it? just want to know…

Yes, I do read your comments. I read every one of them. And I benefit immensely from your comments, especially those that are critical of and challenge my views.

Obviously what’s more important is that other people – concerned citizens and decision makers – are also reading your comments. And benefiting from them.

But I suspect that what “10000eyes” really wants to know is why I did not post any comments, why I didn’t participate in the discussions. It was intentional. The discussions that “Press release” generated were good, so I preferred to sit back, be quiet and listen. But, be assured, I paid close attention to the discussions. And, I hoped that other readers were following your conversations as well. In fact, that’s why I’ve refrained from posting too many new entries since then.

My views haven’t changed: I still think that liberalizing the tourist tariff is a terrible idea; that requiring hotels catering to tourists to upgrade to at least a 3-star category is insane; and that unilaterally dictating how the entire proceeds of the TDF will be used is illegal.

All said, however, every one of us seems to agree on one thing: that we do not want mass tourism. Okay. But what is mass tourism? How would you define it? Nepal!

Of course, Nepal. And, yes, we do not want to go Nepal’s way, because mass tourism has ruined their country.

But answer this: how many tourists visit Nepal in a year? One million? Two? Three?

Wrong!

In 2008, Nepal had less than 550,000 tourists. And that was an all time record.  And, it included Indian tourists, some 100,000 of them. And, Nepal has about 30 million people.

Now, think about our own country. We have barely 600,000 people. And we seem to be targeting 100,000 tourists per year. And that does not include Indian visitors – they don’t need visas, they don’t pay the daily tourist levy (inappropriately called “royalty”), and they could arrive in much larger numbers.

I don’t know about Nepal. But for Bhutan, liberalizing tourist tariffs and aiming for 100,000 tourists per year amounts to inviting mass tourism. And that must not be acceptable.

PRESS RELEASE

The Opposition Leader called on the Minister of Economic Affairs, His Excellency Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk, yesterday to express the Opposition Party’s concerns on the Royal Government’s recent policy decisions on tourism. The Opposition Leader reported that, after studying the Royal Government’s Executive Order of 13 November 2009 and consulting a wide range of people, representing a cross section of society, the Opposition Party has concluded that:

On the Royal Government’s decision to “Roll out of the integrated channel, price and supply policy that liberalizes the minimum package price and mandatory package via tour operator requirement…”

  1. Liberalizing the tourist tariff will undermine the positive brand image that our country has carefully cultivated and enjoyed over the last three decades. Most foreigners, including those who have never visited Bhutan, perceive Bhutan as a high end, exclusive destination. They consistently applaud the existing tariff policy as responsible and sustainable measures that are also in line with the principles of Gross National Happiness. Liberalizing the tourist tariff, even if it actually amounts to increased tourist spending, will harm Bhutan’s brand image. [Continue Reading…]