Bhutan’s rush hour festival –travellers’ nightmare
Bhutan Tour Organizers face rush hour during festival (Tshechu) season, so they are less interested to promote popular festivals in Bhutan, which are major tourist attraction events in Bhutan. Yet, the Bhutan Creative Tour promotes exclusively the taste of authentic festivals of remote Bhutan, which helps the rural communities to earn livelihood from ecotourism. Bhutan Creative Tours promotes the popular events at smaller scale due to acute shortage of guides, vehicles, and accommodation during the season.
Bhutan receives a large number of tourists during the peak seasons in spring and autumn, every year. It is the Paro tshechuin spring and Thimphu tshechu in autumn that attract tourists. According to the Tourism Council of Bhutan, festivals remain as one of the most visited attractions in the country since Bhutan opened to tourism.
Bhutan tour organizers have raised concerns on the negative effects of tourist rush on the quality of service delivery, which is why they prefer not to promote the popular tshechus.
It has been over 20 years now and the country has recorded an increase in tourist arrivals only during peak seasons.The tourist arrival trend hasn’t improved, despite numerous hotels coming up every year. This is the reason why companies promote tours after tshechus when the congestion eases. With the unchanging trend of tourist arrival, some tourism companies prefer to promote during the lean season.
Over the years, Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), as well as tour operators, particularly the Bhutan Creative Tours, in the country exercise caution while promoting tourism during the peak season, in order to avoid inconveniences for the tourists and ensure high quality services.
Last year, Paro tshechu and Thimphu tshechu witnessed a record arrival of 3,471 and 3,187 visitors. Jambay lhakhang drub received 2,536 visitors, followed by Punakha tshechu, Tangbimani, Tamzhing phalachoetpa and Urayakchoe.
Peak seasons are also seen as threat to the industry as there has been increasing pressure on existing products over the years. The tour operators would like to focus towards more product diversification and creativity.For instance, Taktshang, a popular tourist hotspot, and trekking routes, such as Jomolhari trek, get very crowded during peak season.
Besides main festivals like tshechus, tour operators feel the need to promote local festivals. Some tour companies have been doing that at small scale. Local festivals usually occur during the lean season and the dates are uncertain, which is an issue.
During Thimphu tshechu, all hotels in Thimphu, Paro and Punakha are booked at least for the first week of October. It is the time of the year where tour operators, hoteliers, guides, and handicraft shops do brisk business. All hotels in Thimphu remain fully occupied and tour operators keep their guests in Paro and Punakha.Although there are enough hotels to cater to tourists in the country, they are not equally distributed in all regions.Majority of the 123 standard hotels are in Paro and Thimphu, followed by Bumthang.
Unlike last year, with more arrivals comparatively, many tour operators were busier this season. During the season, the hospitality industry faces a range of issues from accommodation to airline booking. There were not many issues last year. However, the situation usually improves from October onwards.
Bhutan mostly receives fellow or free independent travellers, meaning that there are two or three independent travellers, unlike in other countries where travellers usually visit in groups. This adds to the bigger crowd during the peak season. Another issue is the rush for experienced guides.
The national airline Drukair caters to about 31,000 tourists, including regional tourists, in October and November. Last year, around the same time, it was about 29,354 tourists and Drukair had deployed 130 additional flights in October and November.
Established tour companies have about 30 to 40 guides, including freelancers, during peak seasons. Officially, there are 1,800 registered guides and only half of them operate during the season.