Professionalising Bhutanese Tour Guides
When tourists arrive in Bhutan, the first thing they see is not the pristine mountains or the serene environment. They see the guides.
Bhutan has come a long way since it opened its doors to tourism in 1974. Until 1998, the sector functioned under the government. Tour operator and guides were government employees.
Today, the tourism industry has become the second largest revenue contributor in the country. Last year, 62,733 international tourists visited Bhutan, which translates to a total revenue of Nu 4.719 billion.
Tourists require experienced guides to help them navigate the country
When tourists arrive in Bhutan, the first thing they see is not the pristine mountains or the serene environment. They see the guides. Exploring a country through books is not enough as landmarks, signage and tracks change constantly. Tourists require experienced guides to help them navigate the country. Currently, there are over 1,000 licensed and active tour guides in the country.
Recognising the important role that tour guides play, the Guide Association of Bhutan (GAB) was founded in February 27, 2009. It was officially registered with the Civil Society Organisation Authority in June 2010.
GAB started with 67 members. The organisation has now grown, with over 500 members.
Aims of the Guide Association of Bhutan (GAB)
As tour guides are the ‘eyes’ through which tourists see Bhutan, GAB aims to create a platform for guides to voice their concerns and to attain the highest degree of professionalism.
The founder and chairman of GAB, Garab Dorji, said that with the ‘High Value, Low Impact’ tourism strategy of Bhutan, such a platform for guides is necessary. “We go all over Bhutan, talk to people and we come from all over Bhutan to handle one of the most delicate businesses, human beings.”
He said that with the organisation, it is easier for the guides to voice their concerns and to train them. “If you want to file a case, it is much easier for the guide to talk through the association.”
For the welfare of the guides, GAB aims to upgrade its training. It does not, however, mean that GAB will train new guides as it will go against the interest of GAB. “GAB is there to protect the livelihood of guides, not to produce more guides. Once the guides are trained and become part of us, we upscale their training so that they become more professional.”
Garab Dorji said that if there are more guides, it would be difficult for them to find jobs and that affects the professionalism of the guides.
Even if the non-members have issues, they can approach GAB for help. “We mediate, support and talk on their behalf, but we do not provide them with training.” he said. “GAB is there for all the guides, but when it comes to benefits, only members will benefit directly. We take non-members only when our members are not enough to fill the gap.”
Challenges faced by the Guide Association of Bhutan (GAB)
Garab Dorji said that although the association has enough resources, it still faces challenges in terms of funding. Currently the association receives funding mainly from the Tourism Council of Bhutan, project proposals, donations, and fund raising programmes.
The association also faces the issue of a lack of good instructors and in maintaining the quality of tour guides. “We cannot compromise on the quality of our guides and the number of guides that are being produced. We do not need more than 1,000 guides. Quality could suffer otherwise.”
However, there is a silver lining ahead. The government is investing and giving importance to the growth of the tourism industry. GAB in its own way is also contributing towards the development of the sector by ensuring the welfare of one of its most essential components – training guides and building professionalism.
By Karma Cheki (This article has been edited for the Bhutan Times)