Bhutan reopens to tourists, but only a select few

TThe tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan reopened its doors to tourism on Friday after two and a half years of border closures, but 35-year-old tour guide and driver Pema Wangyal doesn’t have any jobs lined up yet. He also does not expect this for at least a few weeks.

There are many factors that are slowing down the recovery of Asian tourism. Located between China and India, Bhutan may have added one of its own: a daily fee of $200, which is charged to anyone wanting to enter, for the duration of their stay. The state was already known to require visitors to spend at least $250 a day, but that amount went to accommodation, food, transportation, and government “sustainable development fees.”

The extra $200 new car buys nothing but the privilege of enjoying the stunning views of Bhutan and the fresh mountain air.

Wangiel realizes that the latest charge is intended to be a disincentive. Before the pandemic closed the country’s borders, it “was a little crowded,” he said. “Bhutan is a very small country.” But he’s also worried about what that will mean for him. “I think very few tourists are coming over the next few weeks. I don’t think many guides will be hired right after the reopening, we will have to sit and wait.”

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Dorjee Dardhull, general manager of the Bhutan Tourism Board, does not apologize. He says the number of pre-COVID visitors was stressing the country’s infrastructure and reducing the quality of the experience.

“Tourism, as an industry, has become less professional and droopy,” he told supportessays com magazine, which locals saw as a “very easy way to make money.” “We were basically, as a sector, racing to the bottom rather than looking to go higher.”

The silver lining to the COVID-19 border closures, he argues, is that it has given Bhutan “a real chance to stop all the things that were going wrong and it has given us a chance to reset our tourism.”

This photo taken on December 7, 2019 shows Bhutanese tourists taking photos with tour guides in Punakha District, Bhutan.  (Lilian Swanrumfa/AFP via Getty Images)

This photo taken on December 7, 2019 shows Bhutanese tourists taking photos with tour guides in Punakha District, Bhutan.

Lillian Swanrumfa/AFP via Getty Images

Bhutan doubles its selective tourism

Bhutan is already one of the most exclusive tourist destinations in the world. The kingdom opened its borders to foreigners only in 1974, adopting a “high value and low volume” tourism policy. Tourists had to book their trips through registered tour operators and exclude those huge minimums.

Despite the costs involved, Bhutan welcomed more than 315,000 foreign visitors in 2019. They came for bragging rights as much as the wonderful environment. After all, how many people can say they’ve gone to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which hangs off a cliff, or across the snow-capped peaks of Bhutan?

Read more: Tourist destinations in Asia are struggling to come back to life

Now the country is going a step further. Starting Friday, group tours are no longer a requirement, but $200 in daily tax is paid separately from housing and meals. Officials say the new model will help rebrand the small Buddhist kingdom as an “exclusive destination” that attracts “distinguished tourists”.

The tourism industry is already feeling the impact. Tour company owner Karma Sanjay Funcho realizes that tourism numbers have been too high. In the pre-pandemic period, “there was a lot of rubbish,” he says. “Trash is everywhere.”

Phuntsho now receives “a lot of inquiries”, but says “many of them don’t book. They say Bhutan is inaccessible for middle-class travelers like us.”

However, those who can afford it should see $200 a day put to good use. The new money was earmarked for tree planting, training programs and the development and maintenance of trails. It builds on the work done by the Bhutan government during the pandemic, when it started improving roads, arranging monuments and even improving public baths across the country.

This photo taken on December 8, 2019 shows Bhutan hotel workers dressed as Thai tourists in Bhutanese traditional attire in Paro County, Bhutan.  (Lilian Swanrumfa/AFP via Getty Images)

This photo taken on December 8, 2019 shows Bhutan hotel workers dressed as Thai tourists in Bhutanese traditional attire in Paro County, Bhutan.

Lillian Swanrumfa/AFP via Getty Images

Dhradhul says he wants to work on getting green certification for all accommodation, and says discussions are underway to make all tourism-related transportation electric.

He also notes that the country of just 790,000 people has 3,000 registered tour operators and 3,500 guides. Fewer visitors means “they have to come forward and they have to be competitive because we know for sure that the number of tour operators and the number of tour guides, that’s not possible for the number of tourists we’re going to receive.”

Tour guide Wangyal says he plans to major in his native region, Bumthang district in central Bhutan, known as the spiritual heart of the kingdom for its sacred sites and monasteries.

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Meanwhile, the Funcho Tourism Agency will receive its first guests for two and a half years on September 28 – a Costa Rican couple. The next day, some guests will arrive from Brazil. In October and November things get even better, with some groups coming for up to 12 days so they can acclimatize on the Gangtey Trek, which crosses a glacier valley and passes through several remote villages.

He is concerned about what the new fees will mean and how it will be affected by the end of the rule requiring tourists to book through agencies such as his office. But he plans to remain competitive by offering more tours where guests can interact with locals, such as a tour to meet local farmers, and he is considering setting up tours that focus on specialized activities like cycling, meditation and yoga.

“It gives us a chance to look beyond traditional city sightseeing,” he says.

This is what the authorities are counting on.

“Now we’re really focused on enhancing or upgrading the visitor experiences,” says Dradhull of the Tourist Board. “Due to COVID-19 and many other things that are not very good, we feel that wherever visitors go, they will be looking for a place and space where they can feel peace of mind.”

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write to Amy Junia at [email protected]

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