Tour operators and TCB meet to fine-tune new rules and regulations

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Dechen Dolkar

Tour operators have said they should be allowed to facilitate payment of the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) for tourists who choose to go through local tour operators.

The recommendation was submitted during the consultation between the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) and the Tourism Board of Bhutan (TCB) yesterday.

According to the Draft Tourism Rules and Regulations 2022, the Immigration Department would collect the SDF from the tourist when issuing the visa or permit.

During the consultation meeting, ABTO members asked why Bhutanese tour operators cannot apply for visas and facilitate SDF payment for tourists who choose to go through the tour operators.

“As a result, as is practice, SDF payments would now be made direct from banks to the DoI,” a tour operator said.

According to the new tourism policy, tourists have the option of visiting Bhutan through package tour operators or by booking the tours themselves.

The tour operators said that since tour operators are not mandatory, foreign tour operators would operate the circuit and such businesses would be ubiquitous in the future.

The TCB official said the new tourism policy will eliminate offshore agents organizing tours to Bhutan. “Before, 80% of tours were operated by offshore agents.”

Tour operators said it would be difficult to stamp out offshore agents if the rules and regulations were unclear.

A TCB official also said that although tourists would not be required to go through the tour operator, tourists would not be allowed on their own. “They need to be guided by service providers.”

The draft rules state that a tourist visiting Bhutan should obtain a visa or permit in accordance with Bhutan’s immigration laws.

“An option should be given to tourists, either through a tour operator or private when paying visa fees and SDF,” one tour operator said.

Tour operators said they would have the opportunity to see and experience an online portal before tourism opens on September 23.

The draft rules state that a tourist will book and arrange the tourist service only through the online booking identified by TCB.

Tour operators asked about the difference between SDF payment gateway with DoI and online portal. “We want to see how an online portal works.”

The TCB official mentioned that tourists have the option of choosing the hotel and traveling with any vehicle from the airport if they book the tour themselves.

However, tour operators asked what was the logic behind imposing a seven-year passenger vehicle requirement if tourists can travel with any vehicle from the airport. “Tourists can choose to travel by taxi or public bus.”

The draft rules also state that only someone between the ages of 25 and 56 with at least three years of driving experience is allowed to drive the passenger vehicle.

Tour operators said the requirement was illogical. Even pilots in Bhutan are allowed to fly until they are 60. They argued that any driver with a medical certificate should be allowed to drive.

Tour operators also said the commercial bond requirement should be applied to all service providers and not just tour operators and hoteliers.

TCB officials said comments and recommendations would be tabled at tomorrow’s board meeting.

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