Tourism in Bhutan and COVID-19’s Lasting Impacts

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THIMPU, Bhutan — The Kingdom of Bhutan is a small country landlocked between India and China. The country is well known for its Gross National Happiness Index and for being the only carbon-negative economy in the world. Bhutan has preserved both its culture and natural habitat throughout the rapidly globalized times. As a country that greatly limits outside influence, tourism in Bhutan has become both an economic boon and a bane.

COVID-19 in Bhutan

After the COVID-19 pandemic first exploded across the globe, Bhutan decided to close its international borders. Bhutan finalized this decision after a visiting American tourist tested positive for the virus. After banning tourism, Bhutan’s government also issued a mandatory three-week quarantine for any residents returning from abroad. These limitations initially worked for the country. By the end of the summer, Bhutan had approximately 100 confirmed cases and no fatalities, making it the safest country in Southeast Asia in terms of case totals.
Despite these efforts, the government decided to initiate its first national lockdown after a new internal case had appeared. A woman who had returned from Kuwait tested negative after waiting out the mandatory quarantine period; a few weeks later though, she tested positive for the virus. She had come into contact with not only her family but countless residents between these two tests.
Officials could not tell if she was a dormant carrier or if she caught it from someone else within the country. The government issued a statement clarifying that the reason behind the sudden lockdown was to “identify and isolate all positive cases” in order to prevent more transmission from unknown sources.

Bhutan’s Economy

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.
Having spent both time and effort to stay closed off from the rest of the world for decades, the tiny kingdom first opened up its borders to international travelers in 1974. The industry grew rapidly, with tourist revenue accounting for 15-20% of all of Bhutan’s goods and services by 1992.  Even with tourism thriving as a business enterprise, the government still maintains strict limitations on who is allowed in.
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. Each year, thousands of Bhutanese residents leave to visit India and Nepal to explore the sites. Yet none of this money is being returned to Bhutan’s economy despite its explorable culture and beauty.

Domestic Tourism in Bhutan

Agencies’ lack of interest has hampered domestic tourism. Another factor affecting domestic tourism is the lack of accessibility to smaller regions. In order to explore the entirety of Bhutan, agencies must be able to easily bring Bhutanese residents to towns other than the most well-known and popular ones. The country’s rural areas lack infrastructure. As a result, roads leading to such rural areas are difficult to traverse through, thus making it an expensive venture not easily coverable with the ngultrum as opposed to the dollar. Without proper interest, there is little to no incentive to fix this issue.
COVID-19 has inspired a new-found interest in domestic tourism though. About 80 different entrepreneurs are looking to expand their work into domestic tourism. Glamping, eco-tourism and homestays are also new ventures they are hoping to offer for both international and domestic travelers.
Bhutan opened up to the world in order to become a viable part of it and share its culture; but in doing so, it became overly reliant on other countries and their money. Tourism in Bhutan has remained unchanged since the 1970s, but that does not mean it has to stay that way. By offering different ways to experience the country, tourism in Bhutan may be able to recover from COVID-19. However, in addition to that, it may create even more job opportunities for those who need them.
Nicolette Schneiderman
Photo: Flickr
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