The week was busy for Bhutanese social media crawlers as they debated heavily about the impacts of mass regional tourism manifested by an Indian tourist who climbed up on Chorten for a perfect picture.
The uproar of the netizens did reach the height where senior government officials and many public figures in India offered public apology through social media for the action of this tourist who is identified as Abhijit Ratan Hajare from Maharastra.
As per reports, the tourist was tracked down and interrogated. He was allowed to travel after a written apology saying he was unaware of the Bhutanese cultures which restrict climbing on sacred stupas. Bhutanese netizens called his innocence disrespectful and highly insensitive. It is unclear if he was allowed to complete his Bhutan tour or was forced to leave Bhutan immediately.
The pictures and videos that appeared online appear to be taken by Bhutanese who were with Hajare’s bikers team. Questions should also be raised if this individual Bhutanese who took pictures and videos had sensitized the tourist about local culture. The question should also be raised why those doing a renovation of the stupa allowed the tourist to use ladder to climb on the stupa without telling him it would be an inappropriate action.
The biker’s team was led by a Bhutanese guy who had the responsibility to tell Dos and Don’t’s before the travel started. It is also the responsibility of the Tourism Council of Bhutan to make sure that those who travel with tourists have proper training.
It is time that the authority must put Bhutan travel restrictions on guide-free travel for regional tourists as it does to those coming from the rest of the world. The incident was part of the immature decision of the government to decide if Bhutan is open for tourism without restriction. Mass regional tourism means not only cultural insensitivity but also environmental pollution. The proposal of the government and the opposition party to open more southern borders for regional tourism will invite more such incidents if current travel provisions are not suitably amended.
The number of regional tourist arrival has increased by over 400% within the last few years. According to the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s Annual Tourism Monitor, there were around 54,000 regional tourists visiting Bhutan in 2012 which has increased to 202,000 by 2018. Of these 192,000 are from India.
Is Bhutan open for Indian tourists in 2022?
The influx of Indian tourists and their actions have angered Bhutanese for quite some time. This may increase negative sentiments in Bhutan against Indians which would create friction in the Indo-Bhutan relationship. Editor of The Bhutanese Tenzing Lamsang tweets, that it is not about discrimination but about Bhutan’s carrying capacity and fragile ecology, crowding, pollution, and scarcity of rental property as more houses turn to hotels to accommodate more tourists.
The influx of regional tourism has deteriorated the charm of high-end international tourism in Bhutan. The Himalayan kingdom is no more a secluded destination for international tourists who in fact bring more income to Bhutan.
Regulating regional tourists may be one option to ensure such incidents will not occur again but more important is to ensure Bhutan remains at the center of attraction for international travelers who genuinely contribute to the Bhutanese economy.