Bhutan

Bhutan sets tourism reopening date

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Bhutan will begin reopening to international tourists in September for the first time since the pandemic began more than two years ago, officials said on June 30, as the tiny Himalayan kingdom looks to revive its economy.

In March 2020, when the first case of COVID-19 was detected, the country of scenic natural beauty and ancient Buddhist culture, sandwiched between China and India, took drastic early steps to ban tourism, the main source of income.

The constitutional monarchy of less than 800,000 people has reported fewer than 60,000 infections and just 21 deaths, but its $3 billion economy has shrunk over the past two fiscal years, pushing more people into poverty.

Tourists will be allowed entry from September 23, the Tourism Commission of Bhutan (TCB) said.

However, they will be charged a sustainability fee of $200 per visitor per night, up from $65 for 30 years. Officials said the new fee would offset the carbon impact of tourists.

“COVID-19 has allowed us to rethink how best to structure and operate the industry…while maintaining a low carbon footprint,” Tandi Dorji, TCB chairman and the country’s foreign minister, said in a statement.

Bhutan has revised standards for service providers such as hotels, tour guides, travel agencies and drivers, authorities said.

The tourism industry employs 50,000 people and contributed an average of about $84 million in direct foreign exchange per year in the three years before the pandemic.

Bhutan, which received 300 tourists in 1974, is open to high-end tourists. That number soared to 315,600 in 2019, a 15.1 percent year-on-year increase, TCB data showed.

Tour operators say tourists are free to choose their own operator and plan their itinerary, whereas previously they could only choose from packages offered by operators.

Sangay Phuntso, who runs Always Bhutan Travel in the capital Thimphu, said the fees might deter some tourists, but not wealthier ones.

“Those who can spend money are welcome,” Phuntsok said. “We’re excited.”

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