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

KATHMANDU (Reuters) – Twenty-three foreign visitors landed in Bhutan on Friday, the first to arrive as the Himalayan kingdom reopened its borders after more than two years after the COVID-19 pandemic, with officials seeking tourism to boost the local economy to breathe new life into it.

FILE PHOTO: A group of foreign tourists walks with a local guide past a row of craft shops in Thimphu May 22, 2012. REUTERS/Singye Wangchuk

Sandwiched between China and India, the country known for its natural beauty and ancient Buddhist culture, it was first opened to wealthy tourists in 1974. In March 2020, it closed its borders to visitors – a major source of income – after the discovery of the first case of COVID-19.

The constitutional monarchy of fewer than 800,000 people has reported just over 61,000 infections and just 21 deaths, but its $3 billion economy has shrunk in the past two fiscal years, pushing more people into poverty.

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

He said the small country was keen to be “very much a part of the whole world”.

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

Each visitor who arrived aboard the maiden flight from Kathmandu in neighboring Nepal was presented with small packets of organic honey, tea, Bhutanese turmeric and a local SIM card in a carrying case, authorities said.

In July, Bhutan increased its contribution to sustainable development to $200 per visitor per night from the $65 it had charged for three decades, as it would like to welcome more tourists with money to spend.

Officials said the fees would be spent on projects such as planting trees, retraining tourists, maintaining hiking trails, reducing reliance on fossil fuels and electrifying transportation vehicles to offset tourists’ carbon footprints.

About 315,600 tourists visited in 2019, a 15.1% increase from the previous year, with visitors contributing an average of about $84 million a year to the economy during the three years before the pandemic hit, TCB data shows.

Reporting by Gopal Sharma

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