Tourist arrivals dropped by 15 percent in 2009 from the year before, prompting people in the industry to call it one of the worst slumps in recent years. Arrivals fell to 23,480 in 2009, compared to 27,636 tourists in 2008, a decrease of 4,156 tourists.
Tourist arrivals have been increasing by 35 percent annually for the past 6 years, but 2009 saw a drop mainly because of the global recession, said tour operators. They said that other reasons could be the political unrest in neighbouring countries such as Thailand and the H1N1 outbreak.
Operators said the year began with more than 1,500 tourists cancelling their trips to Bhutan following the international credit crunch.
Bhutan Tourism Corporation Ltd (BTCL), one of the major tourism companies, saw an almost 60 percent decrease in arrivals. BTCL received 1,200 tourists compared to 3,000 in 2008.
“We haven’t had a good year. 2009 recorded the first decrease in tourist arrivals for the company,” said BTCL managing director, Thinley W Dorji. “We felt the impact of the global financial crisis because our major market is in the United States.” BTCL received 2,400 tourists in 2007.
Etho Metho Tours and Travels also recorded an almost 45 percent drop in tourist arrivals last year. About 900 tourists, from USA and Europe, came through the company, compared with 1,400 tourists in 2008. “The company has received more than 1,000 tourists every year in the past 5 years,” said the company’s finance officer.
Although the United States of America was hit hard by the economic recession, visitors from there still topped the number of arrivals in 2009 with 4,786 American tourists, followed by 3,136 Japanese. Japan was also among the countries worst hit by the global recession.
American tourists arrivals, however, dropped by almost 31 percent in 2009. About 6,941 Americans had visited the country in 2008.
With an upcoming market in China for Bhutan as a tourist destination, about 1,143 Chinese visited the country last year. A tourism official said that many Chinese tourists come to Bhutan on pilgrimage tours. About 1,968 tourists from the United Kingdom arrived in 2009 compared to 2,758 in 2008.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) had expected at least 25,000 tourists last year, compared to almost 28,000 in 2008, said TCB officials.
Following requests from tour operators last year, the council had reduced its royalty and discounted Drukair tickets. They also deferred the scheduled tariff revision of USD 250 from 2009 to a later date and provided a discount of USD 20 during peak season and USD 16 during off-season (January, June and July) on royalty after July 9.
Government revenue from royalty for 2009 was about USD 10.9 million, a drop from USD 13.80 million in 2008. The industry had generated in total USD 31.87 million last year.
Tour operators, however, are optimistic about the year ahead. Most of them are receiving bookings for this year. “We don’t expect a drastic increase, but this year is slightly better,” said BTCL managing director. “Arrivals should pick up by 2011.”
There are currently more than 465 tour operators in the country.
Tourists for the Thimphu Tshechu, one of the most popular festivals for tourists, also decreased to 2,109 in 2009 from 3,297 the year before.