Bhutan welcomes back tourists after Covid-19 with honey, turmeric and SIM cards

PHOTO: Chan Brothers Travels

KATHMANDU - Twenty-three tourists landed in Bhutan on Friday (Sept 23), the first to arrive as the Himalayan kingdom reopened its borders after the Covid-19 pandemic forced it to close its borders for more than two years.

Wedged between China and India, the country known for its natural beauty and ancient Buddhist culture first opened to wealthy tourists in 1974.

In March 2020, it shut its borders to visitors - a major source of income - after detecting its first case of Covid-19.

The constitutional monarchy of fewer than 800,000 people has reported just over 61,000 infections and only 21 deaths, but the US$3 billion (S$4.3 billion) economy contracted in the last two fiscal years, pushing more people into poverty.

"Tourism for us is more than just revenue," said Mr Dorji Dhradhul, director-general of the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), after receiving the first visitors at the country's only international airport at Paro, near the capital city of Thimphu.

He said the tiny country is keen to be "very much a part of the whole world".

"We feel through tourism we can do that… take advantage of their support and goodwill," he told Reuters from Bhutan, referring to the international community.

Each visitor who arrived aboard the first flight from Kathmandu in neighbouring Nepal was offered small packs of organic honey, tea, Bhutanese turmeric and a local SIM card, all in a tote bag, as a gift, the authorities said.

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In July, Bhutan raised its Sustainable Development Fee to US$200 (S$284) per visitor per night from the US$65 it had charged for three decades, saying it was keen to welcome more tourists who could spend money.

Officials said the fees would be spent on projects like planting trees, upskilling tourism workers, maintaining hiking trails, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and electrifying transportation vehicles to offset tourists' carbon footprints.

About 315,600 tourists visited in 2019, up 15.1 per cent from the year before, with visitors contributing about US$84 million on average each year to the economy for the three years before the pandemic hit, TCB data showed. 

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.