Bhutan will finally reopen to tourists on Sept 23


The Punakha Dzong is one of the tourist attractions in Bhutan. – MELODY L. GOH/The Star

Bhutan is set to welcome back international tourists from Sept 23, almost two years after the Himalayan kingdom closed its borders in an effort to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The reopening will come with some major changes in regulations, Dorji Dhradul, director general of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, said.

A mandatory pre-payment for package tours known as the Minimum Daily Package rate (MDPR) of US$200 to US$250 (RM907 to RM1,134) per night per tourist has been abolished. This had included accommodation, transfers within Bhutan, meals and a Sustainable Development Fee (SDF).

Visitors will now be able to apply for their own visas and have the option for choosing service providers once they reach Bhutan. Earlier they had to plan and pay for the entire trip through a government-authorised travel agency.

"We hope this change will foster creativity amongst the tourism services and encourage flexibility for tourists to choose the service of their choice and pay accordingly," Dhradhul said.

Tourists will, however, have to pay a higher SDF which has been hiked from US$65 (RM295) per night to US$200.

Fabulous mountain vistas, untouched forests, a treasure trove of flora and fauna and its imposing Buddhist monasteries, palaces and rustic homes make Bhutan a popular tourist destination.

"Covid-19 really gave us a wake-up call to re-evaluate our tourism industry," Dhradul said.

The revised SDF will ensure that the visitor participates in the carbon-neutral country's objective of sustainable development and gross national happiness which seeks a balance between material and other equally important goals of emotional and spiritual fulfilment.

The government has also decided to open up a few regions previously closed to tourists. "We will soon have new entry points for tourists in Samste and Gelephu in the South and Samdrup Jongkhar in the East. We hope these will diversify the tourists’ itineraries and experiences."

The government since the 1970s has practised a policy of “high-value, low-volume tourism” to balance economic returns with preservation of the fragile Himalayan ecology and environment. Tourist arrivals are carefully regulated according to the capacity of hotels and transport.

Despite this, the sector is the second biggest revenue earner after hydro-electric power and the largest employment creator. The two years of the pandemic has hit the tourism industry hard as well as government revenues. – dpa

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