Film Tourism - Bhutan’s untapped tourism product

The tourism reform offers opportunities for Bhutan to harness the film industry
As a major reform in Bhutan’s tourism industry begins, there are concerns expressed if tourism will generate the same amount of revenue or not. On the other side, there is unanimity that marketing should be robust. However, there has been no dialogue in the open forum about a product that can generate revenue as well as market the country effectively. It is film tourism and Bhutanese film makers and others say that the tourism reform provides Bhutan the opportunity to harness this globally acknowledged power. 
Kinley Tshering from Samuh said “the vision is clear”. “It is bold and certainly disruptive but we must see the bigger picture. Where will this new tourism policy take us, in the next decade and thereafter? We must be able to sacrifice the short term gains for long-term benefits, which is developing Bhutan into a truly, exclusive, high-end destination,” he added. 
Kinley mentioned that in the past two years of pandemic, tourism industry has been literally non-existent. “The industry hit rock bottom as international travel restrictions were imposed. This new policy therefore gives us an opportunity to rethink our approach to tourism and design new ways to develop the tourism sector so that it benefits the entire country and the people,” he said. 
Kinley further noted that as Bhutan innovates, it is important that the new tourism policy considers important sectors like film and creative industries and harness its potential for tourism promotion and to attract big film international productions. 
“Bhutan is well positioned to take advantage of the increasing demand for film locations. But this would entail reviewing of existing film regulations. In addition to revenue generated through foreign productions, these films will also help promote Bhutan’s landscapes. Film tourism is a successful business model in many countries and Bhutan stands to benefit if this is done in the right way,” he said.
“For reasons I am oblivious of, Bhutan has never been promoted as a destination for films,” a local filmmaker said, adding that the concept of film tourism is no where to be seen. “I have read several government publications and documents and apart from regulations on filmmaking in Bhutan, I have never come across the phrase ‘film tourism,’” he said. His Majesty the King, on one hand has been reiterating on the importance of using technology and that Bhutan cannot afford to be left behind and on the other hand we have people who do not seem to understand, he added.
According to him, films are at the center of all policies framed in other countries. “Films are used as the soft power by countries similar to Bhutan, while larger countries use films for their tourism industry, to promote their culture, spread their ideology and many other purposes,” he underlined. 
He also said that the government citing Covid 19 as a reason had not permitted to shoot the Harry Potter’s series “Secrets of Dumbledore.”  Though Covid 19 was a problem, “it could have been done in a contained manner,” he explained, underscoring that the government lost millions of USD at a time when “we really needed it.” Thus, if the government is now concerned about bringing tourists in, the film industry should be considered as one of the stakeholders of the tourism industry, he noted.  
Tandin Wangchuk, who worked as a film distributor, said many regional and international filmmakers question him why Bhutan is not being promoted as the location for film making. “Today, even if they are not permitted, using technology, everything can be recreated. So why don’t we start mining a gem we have,” he questioned, saying it is high time for concerned authorities to realize that Bhutanese films and film makers can take on any other film industry. “Sometimes, I feel policy makers do not understand this concept,” he said, adding that if it is just one or two films winning awards or catching international limelight, questions can be asked. “But dozens of films have done it; such as “The Red Phallus’ (feature film),” “Honey Giver Among the Dogs”,  “A song of silence”, “Why is the Sky Dark at Night” and the latest one being “Gangnam Girls,” he said. “And, we cannot forget Pawo Choyning Dorji’s “Lunana; A Yak in the Classroom”, which was nominated for the Oscars and reached the last five,” he said. 
“16.6 million people watched the Oscars. That means 16.6 million people heard about Bhutan. Can there be any other superior marketing tool and it did not cost the government anything,” he said, adding that people will visit Bhutan because of the films.
Tshering Dorji, an entrepreneur, said films have several advantages. “Firstly, if we permit films to be made in Bhutan, we earn revenue directly. Secondly, the country is marketed and thirdly Bhutanese get the opportunity to learn. But let’s focus on the first two as we are talking about tourism,” he said. 
According to Tshering, more than 108 cast and crew came together – from Bhutan, Australia, Germany, India, Canada and the US – to work with Jambyang Khentse Rimpoche for the movie “Travelers and Magicians.” “Imagine its economic impact as the crew needs to eat and drink. Similarly, think about international film makers coming here. They won’t be spending just three or four days like the tourists we are currently worried about. They will be here for months. Do the maths and calculate the benefits,” he said. 
Moreover, he said that people visit places where films have been made. “Most Bhutanese must have watched “Brave Heart”, the Oscar winning movie. Shot in Stirling, Scotland, the movie is iconic for generating more than $47 million dollars for the medieval city,” he said. 
The film industry begins by raising awareness of places, captivating the attention of the viewer and encouraging the individual to visit a destination. A study has shown that “after family and friends and the Internet, movies are the second most influence able factor when choosing to travel to a particular country.”  A representation of a movie on the screen can emphasize the image of a destination in the mind of the consumer and at the same time promote and improve this image making a destination become a potential one, he explained. 
A graduate from Bangalore University, India, said films make a difference. “The famous Hindhi movie, Sholay, which immortalized Gabbar Singh was shot in a village called Ramanagaram, which is about 25 kms from Bangalore. I went to the place just because Sholay was shot there and I saw that the village is being preserved and hundreds of people come there,” he said. 
Meanwhile, filmmakers are also concerned about a “rumour” they heard. “We heard that the Royal Civil Service Commission’s (RCSC) restructuring exercise wants to do away or club the National Film Commission (NFC) with Bhutan InfoComm and Media Authority (BICMA). Since inception, NFC has helped the film industry; we hope it is not true,” a film maker said. 
The formation of the National Film Commission (NFC) facilitated the nomination of “Lunana, A Yak in the Classroom” to be nominated for the Oscars. “As everyone knows, it is a milestone for Bhutan. In more ways than one the NFC has facilitated the growth of the Bhutanese film industry. It has its own mandate and of all, it has made the work of film makers easier, compared to how it was when BICMA was the sole agency involved. As mentioned above there are words that the restructuring may lead to the closure of the NFC. It will be square one. It may not be true, for we believe that the review team comprises people who understand the different facets of “National Interest,” he said.