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Road to Merak leads to declining tourist arrivals

Annual tourist arrivals in Merak and Sakteng gewogs in Trashigang have dropped drastically since Merak was connected with road till its gewog centre in 2014.

The annual tourism report 2015 states that 123 tourists trekked the Merak-Sakteng trail in 2014. This fell to only 88 tourists trekking on the trail in 2015.

Porter group members also said that there has been a huge drop in tourist arrivals. A porter group member from Chaling, Norbu said that the number of guests dropped by a huge margin since the road reached Merak from Jigmeling. “The road really affected tourist arrivals,” he said.

Income from tourists also decreased to about Nu 60,000 from around Nu 200,000 a year, when the road did not reach Merak, he said.

“After the road reached Merak, I cater to only about two to three groups of tourists a year with most preferring to travel by car,” Norbu said, adding that whenever he asked the resort proprietors in Trashigang, he was told that tourists now take taxis to Merak.

Earlier, the road to both Merak and Sakteng was left halfway to the gewog centres in line with the previous Plan. The idea of leaving the road midway was to enable the herders including the people of Chaling to earn some income from eco-tourism mainly through porter and pony services.

While the road to Merak was left at Jigmeling, the one to Sakteng was left at Thrakthri. With this, it was also expected that tourists could halt in the villages enabling villagers to earn incomes through home-stays, campsites and guesthouses.

The gewog also standardised routes to the highlands with Chaling as the entry point and Joenkhar in Sakteng as the exit point. The porter and pony groups in Chaling were supposed to escort guests till Merak and return after handing them over to the people of Merak.

From Merak, porter and pony groups would take the guests till Sakteng and then hand them over to the communities there. Porter and pony groups from Sakteng would then see the guests off at Joenkhar or Thrakthri.

However, that plan did not go down well with the herders of Merak, who proposed that the road be built till the gewog centre in their village. In 2014, the road was expanded till the gewog centre at Merak.

Since then, tourist arrivals started to decline.

Phuntsho, who also leads another porter and pony group from Chaling, said that the number of tourists has decreased since the road reached Merak. “Even the income for my group from porter and pony services dropped to Nu 50,000 from over Nu 150,000 earlier,” Phuntsho said.

Phuntsho has also experienced a drop in the number of tourist groups from around 10 to 15 a year to just two to three after the road reached Merak.

A herder from Merak, Wangda who also leads a porter pony group said that the number of tourists trekking to the gewog has declined by a huge margin. “There was a huge drop in the tourist arrivals in 2014 though the number improved the following year,” Wangda said.

In 2014, Wangda said that there were only five groups of tourists in the entire year.

While the people of Chaling attributed the drop to road connectivity, herders in Merak, herders in Merak however decried the road as cause.

“Tourists can still halt in our village even when coming by car but they don’t and we don’t understand why guides take them back to Trashigang in the evening,” Wangda, who also runs a homestay, said.

He also attributed the dwindling number of tourists to high porter and pony fares, which is Nu 480 a day.

A gewog official said that the downturn could also be because of Merak and Sakteng falling under the protected area. “It could also be partly because of the requirement of special permit to enter the gewogs since it’s under the park,” he said.

Some herders like Nima, however, argued that taking road to the village has helped the community more than eco-tourism had. “While road is benefiting the entire community, tourism has benefited only one or two individuals,” he said.