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Gelephu Winter respite for hoteliers
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Winter respite for Gelephu hoteliers
Bhutan
Come winter the supposedly "dying" hotel business in Gelephu town picks up slightly as people trickle in from other parts of the country, mandarin businessmen make numerous stopovers, and students travel around visiting families and relatives.

Hotel Chorten, located in the heart of the otherwise sleepy town, buzzes with people and all of its 10 rooms are occupied.

"This comes after a long wait," says manager B.K.Rai. "This winter seems better than the last one. Yet this is not the best business. It just about brings a decent margin in average earnings."

For Chencho Gyeltshen of Hotel Sonam, who has been in the business for past 10 years, winter has not made any difference.

"A hotelier in Gelephu is plagued with several problems," he says, as he hurriedly clears up his breakfast of chapati and curry. "First, we have a border that is pretty unstable, and second, we have too many hotels."

None of the 10 rooms were occupied last night, according to Chencho Gyeltshen's wife. Chencho Gyeltshen pays a monthly rent of Nu. 15,000 for the building excluding other bills and staff salary.

"I started with great hope in 1997 and I did do a decent business until 1999 after which things started going wrong," he says. "Today I just about break even. I might quit if things go worse."

Gelephu today has about 20 hotels including a family run Dragon Guest House, across the town's soccer field. None of the hotel owners seem optimistic.

"We have our own customers, often repeat ones," says the proprietor of the Dragon Guest House, Choki Wangmo. "Our business survives on them. That is why we treat them as part of our family."

Dragon Guest House has a deluxe and two ordinary rooms. Its catering is good, atmosphere homely and mostly receives advance bookings. It even boasts a mention in Bhutan Lonely Planet travel guide.

"Once you decide to risk open a hotel, you better run it as best as it can run," says manager Robin Tamang of Hotel Dechen, adding that complaining actually doesn't solve much of the problem. His hotel, that also has 10 ordinary rooms, is occupied at least in the winter.

Hotels like Tashi Paykheel survive on other services rather than just room and restaurant earnings. "Our specialty is catering," says its young manager, Sazzesh Lama.

But winter is the season that brings a business for Gelephu hotels.

People from the northern dzongkhags come on holidays to enjoy the cool southern winters. The Tshachhu (hot spring) in Shershong brings in its faithful dippers. Many civil servants also come for land transactions and constructions. And there are mandarin businessmen and students making stopovers and waiting for the Indian escort to Phuentshloing and Samdrup Jongkhar.

"This winter we also had about four national conferences and workshops that brought us business," says B.K.Rai. "Hope we will have more of them next winter."

Summers killed the business, hotel owners lament. The incessant torrents caused roadblocks and the heat and mosquitoes kept people away.

Most hotel owners also point out that the September 2004 bombing in Gelephu vegetable market added salt to the already wounded business, which was showing signs of a recovery.

But visitors say that hotels in Gelephu lack service novelty. For example, one army engineer pointed out, all hotels in Gelephu served same food.

"They have all those fancy names on the menu ranging from Bhutanese to Indian to Chinese to Continental dishes," he said.

"You order any of them and they bring you whatever you have just had at your place. This is the major problem with hotels in Gelephu."

Contributed by Gopilal Acharya, KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper, 2011

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