Bhutan welcomes ‘spendable’ tourists for first time since Covid-19

Bhutan welcomes ‘spendable’ tourists for first time since Covid-19

KATHMANDU (Reuters) – Bhutan will reopen to international tourists from September for the first time since the pandemic began more than two years ago, officials said on Thursday, as the tiny Himalayan kingdom looks to revive its economy.

Sandwiched between China and India, the country of scenic natural beauty and ancient Buddhist culture took drastic early steps when its first COVID-19 case was detected in March 2020, banning tourism that a main source of income.

The constitutional monarchy with a population of fewer than 800,000 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 more

The Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) said tourists will be allowed in from September 23.

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

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

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

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

Bhutan opened to high-end tourists in 1974, receiving 300 tourists. That number soared to 315,600 in 2019, up 15.1 percent year-on-year, TCB data showed.

Tourists are free to choose their own travel agency and plan their itinerary, whereas previously they could only choose from packages offered by travel agencies, the travel agency said.

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

“Those who can afford to spend are welcome,” Punco said. “We’re excited.”

Reporting by Gopal Sharma; Editing by Barbara Lewis

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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