Our reporter YK Poudel interviews British High Commissioner to the Republic of India, Alexander Wykeham Ellis, regarding the Bhutan-UK relationship and the future prospects. Excerpts…

On your inaugural trip to Bhutan, you’ve had a packed schedule. What initial impressions can you share about the country and its people?

I’m delighted to be in Bhutan and would like to extend my gratitude to the Royal Government of Bhutan for their warm welcome and hospitality. During my visit, I had the opportunity to explore the iconic Paro Taktshang, a remarkable monument nestled amidst breathtaking natural surroundings. Bhutan’s charm is truly captivating, drawing tourists from around the globe, including the UK.

Over the course of my three-day visit, I had the honor of meeting with His Majesty The King, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and External Trade, and other government officials. These interactions provided me with valuable insights into the country and its aspirations.

What was the intent behind your visit to Bhutan? Do you believe that the objectives of the visit were met?

One of the primary reasons for my visit is to inaugurate the Honorary Consul of the UK to Bhutan. I am pleased to announce that Kalden Sonam Dorji will serve as the Honorary Consul of the UK in Bhutan. This appointment holds significant importance as the Honorary Consul plays a crucial role in fostering and strengthening the ties between our two countries.

The selection process for the Honorary Consul was transparent and open. Kalden Sonam Dorji’s commendable achievements and valuable contributions to the nation have earned him this prestigious role. With this auspicious beginning, there are ample opportunities ahead to further enhance our bilateral relations.

You mentioned meeting with His Majesty The King and the royal family. Could you provide some insights into the discussions held and any potential areas of collaboration discussed?

It was a great honor to have an audience with His Majesty the King, who is revered worldwide and shares a close connection with the UK. His Majesty’s frequent visits to the UK, including his presence at the funeral of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and the coronation of His Majesty King Charles III, underscore the strong ties between our nations.

In terms of collaborations, we are fortunate to have excellent human connections, starting with our monarchs. One key area of focus is education. Bhutanese students have been benefiting from the prestigious Chevening scholarship, a British Government initiative that has been in place for decades. We aim to further strengthen this fully funded opportunity for Bhutanese youth to pursue their studies in the UK, enabling them to contribute more effectively upon their return. Last year, five Bhutanese students were recipients of this esteemed scholarship.

Another area of focus is the tourism sector. Bhutan has already established itself as a sought-after destination for British tourists, thanks to its pristine natural beauty and commitment to carbon negativity. As the pandemic situation comes under control, there is ample scope for enhancing collaborations in this sector. We aim to further promote Bhutan as a sustainable and unique travel destination, fostering greater cultural exchange and economic benefits for both countries.

When foreign government officials visit Bhutan, there’s often curiosity about opportunities within the Mindfulness City or the Special Administrative Region (Ge-SAR). Your Excellency, could you shed light on the areas of investment, discussions, and the future direction for Bhutan in this regard?

The Mindfulness City, a visionary project initiated by His Majesty The King, holds immense promise for Bhutan’s future. During our discussions with the Prime Minister, we explored the exciting potential of this project. While there are no concrete investments internally yet, there are numerous areas where the UK can contribute.

One such area is in the field of design. The UK’s expertise in design can lend dynamism to the project, ensuring that it not only enhances the Bhutanese economy but also preserves its rich cultural heritage. Additionally, there is scope for British investors to participate in the project, particularly in the realm of law. Given that Mindfulness City operates on the principles of common law, UK investments in legal infrastructure could be highly beneficial.

Furthermore, discussions with Her Royal Highness Princess Sonam Dechan Wangchuck have underscored the importance of this project. The Honorary Consul, in his role, will play a vital role in bringing in the necessary expertise and fostering further collaborations and investments. As we move forward, there will be ample opportunities to expand and deepen our engagement in this transformative initiative.

As the British High Commissioner to the Republic of India, and having spent significant time in India, which is our immediate neighbour, what are your observations on the areas where the government of Bhutan can invest to maximise the benefits as Bhutan graduates from Least Developed Countries (LDCs)?

Bhutan’s graduation from its early stages of development is indeed a remarkable success story, marked by significant economic growth. Throughout this journey, the country has managed to preserve its unique identity and cultural heritage, a testament to its steadfast commitment to maintaining its distinctiveness.

As we look ahead, the tourism sector holds great potential for further growth, especially as the industry begins to rebound following the pandemic. Developing a standardized policy for tourism will be crucial in ensuring sustainable and responsible growth in this sector. Bhutan must identify the right strategies to attract tourists that not only contribute to economic prosperity but also uphold the principles of conservation and cultural preservation.

By striking a balance between economic development and the preservation of its natural and cultural treasures, Bhutan can continue to thrive while staying true to its values and traditions.

Do you have any additional remarks you’d like to share about this visit?

Despite Bhutan’s lack of direct relations with the permanent members of the Security Council, this visit was fulfilling, especially with the appointment of a new Honorary Consul, which signals closer ties with the UK.