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Bhutan's Tourism: Trekking
Trekking: A long way to go
Jhomolhari Trek : Most popular route
Campsites get crowded
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Very few Bhutanese Treks
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Trekking: A long way to go
Bhutan is a trekkers paradise in the Himalayas
Breath taking scenery, clean mountain air, lush green valleys, fast flowing mountain streams - Bhutan is a trekkers paradise in the Himalayas.

But the number of tourists visiting Bhutan for trekking is, on the contrary, negligible.

Of the 13,629 tourists who visited Bhutan in 2005 only 613 tourists came in for trekking, according to the international tourism monitor, 2005, released by the tourism department this week.

The reasons for this incongruity are numerous starting with the lack of infrastructure and equipment and the hassles and uncertainties involved during a trek, say tour operators.

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Jhomolhari trek : most popular route
From the 613 tourists who came in for trekking about 400 trekked the Jhomolhari route ( more information), according to tour operators.

The gradual terrain, the scenic climb, the view of the Himalayas, and the fact that it started off from Paro, the main entry and exit point from Bhutan, were some of the reasons for its popularity with both tourists and the operators.

The terrain of the route makes it easier for the tourists to acclimatise, said a tour operator.

"The vegetation also changes day by day. The seven day trek starts from about 2,500 metres above sea level and at the end of the third day, it rises to about 4,100 metres above sea level," he said.

Popularity has its own adverse effects. With September and October as the most favored trekking months ( more information) in Bhutan the autumn season usually sees a number of groups trekking the same route.

"During autumn about 15 groups can be seen leaving from Paro," said Jurmin Wangdi from Yangphel.

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Campsites get crowded
Spring is the next best season to trek ( moreinformation) although mountain passes on high altitude treks are still covered in snow.

Spring usually sees low altitude trekking in Punakha and Wangduephodrang area ( more information). Tourists, tour operators said, usually preferred shorter treks combined with cultural tours.

The most difficult trek in Bhutan is considered to be 21 days Lunana trek or the Snowman trek (more information).

Campsites also lacked basic facilities like toilets and kitchens and many companies did not have the resources to invest in specialised trekking gear and equipment.

"The number of tour operators have been growing but it is only the established ones that invest in trekking equipment or have the capacity to manage trekking ( more information)," said the managing director of Yangphel Adventure Travel, Karma Lotey.

"About 80 percent of the Bhutanese tour operators are new."

Unpredictable weather conditions, the difficulty in arranging logistics and emergency situations made it difficult to promote trekking.

"Emergency helicopter evacuations from the mountains cost about US $ 25,000 a person," said Karma Lotey. "The helicopter has to be hired from Nepal at a cost of US $ 1,200 an hour."

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"On a trek tourists are totally depended on the accompanying staff," he said, adding that trekkers hit by altitude sickness had to be quickly brought down to the lower valleys.

Some tour companies provide the trekking group with a satellite phone on long treks, oxygen and a pressure bag to deal with altitude sickness attacks. Arranging horses and yaks for the trek to transport food and equipment were a major hassle, according to tour operators.

"Sometimes even though bookings are confirmed months in advance another group takes the animals," said an operator.

"At other times the horse contractor starts gathering the animals only when the group gets there."

At least 30 horses ( more information) were needed for a group of 16 tourists trekking for nine days, say tour operators.

Tour operators also pointed out that the majority of the tourists visiting Bhutan were the elderly who had the money but not the energy to walk up the mountains. According to a tour operator the average age of visiting Bhutan was about 56 years.

The younger outdoor type tourists were rare because of the US $ 200 a day tariff.

Only the cultural trek in Bumthang was suitable for the large majority of tourists visiting Bhutan.

Most of the other trek routes were high altitude treks.

Karchung from Lhomen Tours and Treks said a number of tour operators had come up in the recent years without understanding fully what it takes to be a tour operator ( more information). "Just having the license is not enough. One should be fully equipped and capable of handling tourists."

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Very few Bhutanese trek
Only few tourists come to Bhutan on a trekking holiday but even fewer Bhutanese who live within the grandeur of the Himalayas spend time exploring the mountainsides.

While walking is a way of life in many parts of rural Bhutan, the urban Bhutanese population, which is growing fast, has given in to the comforts and conveniences of a modern lifestyle. Leisure time is dominated by sports, archery ( more information), gambling and more recently television.

Many people only have memories of trekking while in school or in college and walking to school as children. The few who trek when they have the time say it's worth the walk.

He added that there were inexperienced guides and cooks taking tourist groups on their own for trekking, which was not a good trend.
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But tour operators agree that trekking has "great" potential. "Bhutan is one of the least trekked countries in the world and it makes Bhutan exclusive and attractive," said the general manager of Yangphel Adventure Travel, Jurmin Wangdi.

There are about 20 trekking routes listed by the tourism department of which nine appear in the Lonely Planet guide. Of these only a few routes are used, tour operators said.

The nine-days Chomolhari trek, with its gradual terrain and other advantages of being near the tourist hotspots, is the most popular route. Tour operators said that there was a need to develop trekking routes, both old and new and try to space out the groups trekking the same route so that the campsites are not crowded.

The director general of tourism department, Lhatu Wangchuk, said that there was limited promotion on trekking mainly because the required infrastructure was not in place.

"In the past two to three years we have been focusing on plans and policies but in the Tenth Plan, we will focus on infrastructure and product development," said the director general.

The Nabji-Khorphu trekking route (more information), which will be a model route and is already being promoted is to open in October, according to the director general. "The route and campsites are in the process of being developed," he said.

Tour operators said that the Nabji-Khorphu route would be a controlled and monitored area and it would help promote the awareness of the communities, which was currently lacking.

Contributed by Kinley Wangmo, KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper, 2006

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