Rinzin Wangchuk

A group of 238 visitors from Vietnam arrived in Bhutan yesterday on a four-day pilgrimage trip.

This is the biggest group of tourists from a single country after the Covid-19 pandemic and the country reopened its borders for regional and international visitors.

“They chartered two Drukair flights from Hanoi to Paro which took 2 hour and 20 minutes,” a Thimphu-based tour operator said.

The pilgrims will visit places of historic and spiritual significance including Punakha Dzong, the old capital of Bhutan and the winter residence of the central monastic body. They will also visit Taktshang Monastery in Paro.

The tour operator said that Vietnamese pilgrims are happy to pay the sustainable development fee (SDF) of US dollar 200 per day. They contributed USD 190,400 (Nu 15.232 million) in SDF at the current USD-Ngultrum exchange rate.

Last year, 110 Vietnamese tourists who were also on a four-day pilgrimage trip to Bhutan contributed SDF amounting to USD 88,000.

According to the tour operator, Bhutan is becoming popular among Vietnamese. “It’s an emerging market and Bhutan can become an important hub for pilgrims,” he said.

The tour operator said that the visit by a large number of Vietnamese has created excitement and given hope to the airline, hoteliers, guides and those in the transport business.

However, the tourism and immigration departments need to improve services and tweak a few things if Bhutan wants to continue to attract tourists from South East Asia, according to some tour operators.

For example, current immigration rules say the tour operators need to submit a visitor’s visa application at least five days before the arrival date. “Like us, many living in the region finalise the plan only at the last minute,” a tour operator said, adding that Bhutan’s immigration rules have to be more flexible and more accommodating.

“We also need to work outside our comfort zone and work harder to provide services tailored to the visitors,” another tour operator said. For instance, the visitors prefer to have ala carte meals and sit-down meals instead of buffet. “Food is an important part of the experience so we have to up our game.”

The Vietnamese travel with their own team of chefs and bring in ingredients to cook meals to supplement their meals. The tour operators said that the government should plough back the SDF to bring in more Vietnamese tourists and train local guides in Vietnamese language as well as cook their cuisines.

The Vietnamese will leave for Kathmandu and return to Hanoi from there in two chartered Drukair flights.

Around 32,600 tourists visited Bhutan between the reopening of international borders in September last year and March 28 this year. Of that, 6,095 tourists paid the SDF of USD 200 per night and 7,343 visited at the old SDF rate. More than half or 19,162 visitors were Indians paying SDF of Nu 1,200 a night.

Some tour operators claimed that the figures could have included non-SDF paying official visitors as the number of tourists visiting the country has seen a steep decline due to the recent tourism policy.