India should have friendly, sensitive foreign policy for Bhutan
India’s neighbour Bhutan is a green and clean nation which pays very special attention to ensure that it remains carbon negative so as to contribute its mite towards countering global warming. One implication of this approach is that Bhutan follows a “high value, low volume” tourism policy. In other words, Bhutan aims to attract only a few tourists each year while ensuring that they are high spending. By doing so, Bhutan is able to ensure local people involved in the tourism industry make a decent living while abiding by its own very high environmental standards.
Over several decades, Bhutan has controlled tourism by insisting that any foreign tourist visiting that country must pay a minimum of US $ 250 per day which includes hotel, food, transportation as well as a Sustainable Development Fee of US $65 per day. This fee assists the Royal Government of Bhutan in its pollution control efforts. However, such charges were not levied on tourists from India, given the special and unique relationship between our two countries.
Now, however, and particularly over the past three years, the number of tourists from India to Bhutan have skyrocketed. Moreover, since such tourism from India is largely uncoordinated there have been incidents of insensitive behavior towards local customs, values and mores. Recently, an Indian tourist climbed a chorten to snap a selfie which is anathema to locals who view these constructions as having religious significance, no less than a mandir or a masjid. Also, as Indian vehicles are permitted to enter Bhutan without any hindrance, there have been instances of Indian drivers, who are not used to mountain roads, being involved in fatal accidents.
To ensure that such incidents do not recur and to continue to achieve its national objectives, the Royal Government of Bhutan intends to pursue a new policy for Indian tourists from 2020. Since Bhutan has limited absorptive capacity due to inadequate infrastructure and fragile ecosystems, it will be necessary for Bhutan to restrict the number of tourists from India. The new policy will entail: The levying of a Sustainable Development Fee on each Indian tourist which will be lower than the US $65 per day charged other tourists.
Indian tourists will be required to arrange their travel through a Bhutanese ground handler who will process e-permits, arrange certified guides and local transportation. A detailed itinerary will need to be agreed to by both sides – Indian tourist group as well as the Bhutanese authorities.
To the extent possible, Bhutanese vehicles and drivers will have to be used. If Indian vehicles are to be permitted into Bhutan some condition, such as use of local drivers, may be imposed.
How do we react to this new policy? How should India respond to this proposed Bhutanese initiative? There will definitely be those who will immediately say that we must insist on reciprocity. If Bhutan levies charges on Indian tourists, we must ensure similar levies on Bhutanese tourists to India. Tit for tat will be the cry from many Indians.
This is exactly the kind of knee-jerk response that India should not give in to. After all, do keep in mind that the circumstances of India and Bhutan are not similar. Bhutan is a tiny nation with a total population of just 7.5 lakh. Bhutan is a landlocked country with its main route to the outside world through India. So here is an occasion where India and its people need to show great sensitivity to our closest neighbour Bhutan.
More than the government of India, it is the people of India who will need to ensure that our foreign policy and our Neighbourhood First policy stays steadfast and remains intact, by willingly accepting the higher charges of tourism to Bhutan. Surely, we can reduce our trips to that Himalayan kingdom? If reduced tourism is in Bhutan’s interest surely the people of India will accept these measures.
Also, we should be happy and willing to follow an asymmetrical policy and permit Bhutanese tourists and others to continue using Indian ports and airports without imposing reciprocal charges on them. So, here is a time where the people of India are being called upon to take a hand in India’s policy towards Bhutan and exhibit sensitivity and understanding toward that nation, which has steadfastly remained a friend of ours through the ages. It is time for the people of India to dictate a friendly, asymmetrical and sensitive foreign policy to our friendly neighbour Bhutan.
(The author is a former Indian Ambassador to Bhutan, Pakistan and China)