This week, two well-known and highly respected religious leaders posted to their social media accounts denouncing and dismissing several false tourism adverts outside of the country that had their photographs and names. These online adverts had gone unnoticed for some time as all of it was in Chinese.
Both Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche have publicly stated that they are not involved with the Chinese travel agencies who are using them without their knowledge to attract tourists from China to Bhutan. The tourists are being promised meetings with the Rinpoches at rates between Nu.3,00,000 to Nu.5,00,000 for just one meeting.
One of the travel agents, Hong Yu Lu, who also goes by the moniker Candy, has worked with two Bhutanese tour operators over the last six years, but the operators have denied any knowledge of, or involvement in these activities. When the paper contacted Lu, she also refuted the allegations of her having charged such amounts or having used photographs of the Rinpoches without their consent. Lu believes she is being framed by people who are resentful of her company’s success. The online brochures were originally shared by her company’s account on WeChat, but were deleted by 19th June following the social media posts by both Rinpoches.
Another agent, Xiao Fang Huang (also Qi Fang Huang), promotes religious tourism on her company’s website. She is the “Minister of International Promotion and Development of BDIF,” an organization in Beijing that runs a “Bhutan Culture Hall that promotes the exchange of culture, religion, and trade between China and Bhutan.” BDIF appears to stand for Buddha Dordenma Image Foundation according to the website but verification has not been possible. The Buddha Dordenma Project has said they have no professional ties to Huang. It has also been confirmed with the Department of Culture that Huang and her organization are not associated with them.
Moreover, the website mentions that a certain Jun Jie Huang is a “Deputy Consul” of the “Bhutanese Embassy in Hong Kong.” All Bhutanese embassies, and the Honorary Consuls are listed on the Foreign Ministry’s website except for this one. The Foreign Ministry has said that Hong Kong previously had an Honorary Consul, Dr.Cheng Yu Tung, but that there have been no new appointees since his term’s expiration in 2012. Neither of the Huangs could be reached for comment.
Screenshots of a leaked WeChat conversation between two individuals from the tourism industry, attacking the Rinpoches was posted to Facebook tailing the public condemnation of the false tourism adverts. This surfaced after a second post by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche where he said, “As a Bhutanese I am embarrassed to recognize that foreign travel agents could not engineer such exploitative scams without the active collusion and profit-sharing of their Bhutanese counterparts in the domestic tourism industry.” The leaked conversation caused an online furore between disciples and critics, which prompted a third placatory post from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.
Pawo Choyning Dorji, attendant to Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, has shared with the paper that the Khyentse Labrang has been aware of collusion between Bhutanese and Chinese travel agents over the last few years, but could not say or do anything because it did not involve them directly. He adds that Rinpoche had to react this time because his name and image were dragged into a commercial promotion of the Bumthang Drupchen that happens only once every 12 years coinciding with the year of the Monkey. A meeting with Rinpoche was being allegedly sold for Nu.500,000 per person, and a five-day attendance at the Drupchen for Nu.2,75,000.
Dorji has revealed that Rinpoche turned away a group of 15 Chinese tourists two years ago after other attendants informed him that a Bhutanese travel agency had demanded Nu.10mn to receive teachings from him. These teachings are always free of cost. “Are we supposed to give a free pass to people who commit crimes just because they are trying to make ends meet?” quips Dorji in response to comments that Rinpoche should not be criticising the Bhutanese tourism industry and tour operators who are “trying to make ends meet.”
Not all Bhutanese players are known besides the tour operators. Collusion has not been confirmed, but neither has it been ruled out.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan has said they can only act if a formal complaint is submitted. There have been no formal complaints so far. And the only action would be to blacklist the offenders. TCB says regulation of foreign agents is almost impossible. They cite the example of a Bhutan Travel Agency based in India’s capital, New Delhi that has been unscrupulous in their dealings. The case remains unresolved despite intervention by the Indian Embassy.
There has been outrage at this recent development both on the Bhutanese as well as Chinese sides. Religious leaders and disciples alike have condemned this practice. Many Chinese disciples are angry that other Chinese have exploited Bhutan in this manner, but are also worried that there could be visa restrictions for Chinese in the future due to this. Bhutanese and Chinese tour operators have expressed concern over potential business being affected by these events.
But several Chinese who have visited Bhutan as religious tourists have said: “Chinese who have not even heard of Bhutan are now hearing about the country through these brochures that have cheapened enlightened Gurus and the country. More damage would have been done had it not been for the Rinpoches speaking out against this wrongdoing. We love Bhutan and it hurts us that this is happening.”
The Bumthang Drupchen set to take place in August, this year was initially open to all, Bhutanese and foreign, but after this episode of fraud, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche has closed the Drupchen to tourists.