Coronavirus update in Bhutan
Currently, Bhutan is closed for tourism. However, Government hopes to revive tourism and reopen it by June 2021. To date, we have 866 COVID-19 cases, all of which are imported of those 862 patients have already recovered and with 3 cases remaining active and we have only 1 death so far.
How will you safely restart tourism to the area?
Bhutan opening its borders for travelers is, of course, dependent on positive developments globally. So far, Bhutan has been blessed. With a limited number of COVID-19 cases, all imported and local transmission, Bhutan has withstood the storm well. (Currently, Bhutan has no tourists after the only tourist, an American woman who tested positive for Covid-19 on March 20 left the country.)
A clear result of an effective nation-wide effort lead by His Majesty The King and embraced by all Bhutanese. The restart of tourism is likely to be easier for Bhutan than it will be for other travel destinations. This is due to our longstanding tourism policy of “High Value, Low Volume,” aptly put by His Majesty during one of the Royal Addresses in 2019.
Between the lockdown and the closed borders, tourism in Bhutan is caught up in an unfortunate crumble. Many individuals, youths, in particular, have lost their jobs and now have no way to provide for themselves or their families because of the stagnant flow of tourists. The mountainous country has a population of approximately 750,000, and tourism in Bhutan lies at the heart of the people’s economy and earnings.
Many work in the hotel industry while others show travelers around various sites as tour guides. Despite how viable the tourism industry is for Bhutan in the modern era, it has not always been a mainstay for the country’s economy.
Bhutan does not limit how many people are allowed in annually (approximately 315,000 tourists arrived in 2019), but there is an extensive application process. Bhutan has adopted a “high value, low impact” policy for its tourism sector; it only allows in those who will respect the culture, nature, and values of the country’s land and people. The majority of visitors reportedly come for leisure purposes, while the next greatest group reported that they come for religious/spiritual pilgrimage.
COVID-19’s Economic Impacts
Since the country first opened up to tourism, the focus of the industry has relied heavily on international travelers and their international coin. The system did not look into new innovations or viable paths to traverse over the decades; it is for this reason that COVID-19 struck Bhutan’s economy as hard as it did.
There has been little investment in domestic tourism in Bhutan despite the country’s rich ecosystem and culture. The circulation of ngultrum, Bhutan’s national currency, is poor within the sector.
Will it become easier for tourists to book a trip to Bhutan?
We fully intend to make planning travel to Bhutan easier, and the in-country experience more adjustable, by the time global travel resumes again. Of course, we have no real influence on when other countries once again open their borders for leisure travelers. And as Bhutan has limited international gateways (Thailand, India, Singapore, Nepal, and Bangladesh), this is something that concerns us. Already before COVID-19 stopped the world in its tracks, we were exploring additional direct connections, for example, by adding a Middle Eastern and Far East country to the mix.
What restrictions could stay in place for visitors?
Our tourism policy of “High Value, Low Volume” will remain in place as it promotes sustainable tourism based on the carrying capacity of our nature, and our socio-cultural, and infrastructural reality. Under this unique policy, since the start of tourism in the 1970s, all tours in Bhutan are guided, which becomes even more relevant today when quarantine practice is becoming a new norm. In addition, we might need to add certain measures as set by the World Health Organization and our own Ministry of Health. Potentially rapid test kits and contact tracing apps will prove to be a relatively easy way of adjusting to the requirements of a new reality. Currently, a contact tracing app is already in use.
What message can be sent to the world about promoting health and well-being opportunities in Bhutan?
Up until now, Bhutan has mainly promoted itself as a destination with a unique culture and a pristine nature. While this still remains true today, Bhutan has even much more to offer. In the last decade, a worldwide growing trend of wellness/well-being travel could be seen. Especially in the wake of COVID-19, this travel trend will grow only more, as people worldwide will reflect on their lives, what truly matters to them, and most likely seek ways to improve their mental and physical wellbeing.
Bhutan, called ‘Menjong – The Land of Medicinal Herbs’ in its olden days, with its Gross National Happiness, its peaceful surroundings make a great destination for these travelers to reflect, relax and reset. Bhutan’s well-being offer is increasing yearly. From yoga and meditation to Buddhist philosophy teachings, from traditional medical treatments to other unique spa experiences, from retreats to pilgrimages. All to be experienced in a serene and spacious environment. And while it may feel contradictory, the new practice of physical distancing, allowing you to truly connect to yourself and your surroundings.