Yangchen C Rinzin

March 23, 2020, will probably be remembered in the history of tourism in Bhutan as the day when there was only one tourist in the country.

Since the day Covid-19 was first detected in the country, all tourists gradually left Bhutan after the government banned the entry of tourists. The last four tourists left Bhutan on Monday.

The only tourist left in the country is the woman who tested Covid-19 on March 20. The tourist is in isolation at the national referral hospital.

The usually busy tourist hotspots like the Memorial Choeten, Kuenselphodrang (Buddha Point), or the Craft Bazaar along the Norzin Lam in Thimphu today wear a deserted look.

The first case of Covid-19 was detected in the country on the same day when Bhutan received an award for the “Best Destination: Happy Tourism” by the Pacific Asia Travel Writers Association.

Bhutan technically has zero tourists in the country for the first time since tourism opened its door in 1974.

There were more than 1,000 tourists in the country at the time when the first Covid-19 case was reported.

Tourism began in Bhutan in 1974. The travel to the east was opened first in 1989.

The number of tourists visiting Bhutan increased to almost 2,000 by 1981 and it kept increasing every year. By 2019, the country began receiving more than 200,000 tourists.

With only single tourist remaining and the government’s indefinite ban on tourism, TCB’s director general, Dorji Dhradhul, said that this was unprecedented and had mixed feelings of loss and opportunity.

“I say loss because the number of tourists has reduced to one and impact on tourism is vivid,” he said. “However, we’re taking it as an opportunity to begin tourism with a new face.”

The ban has resulted in a national revenue loss of USD 4.4 million based on a total of 2,550 international tourist cancellations due to Covid-19 between January 15 and March 23. This is excluding cancellations from regional tourists.

Dorji Dhradhul said that Bhutan was taking intense measures to contain the Covid-19 outbreak. The government, he added, was also working to keep those in the tourism and other affected sectors gainfully employed.

“We’re also working on a tourism recovery plan and even looking beyond like domestic tourism and wellness and wellbeing tourism,” he said. 

He explained that in domestic tourism, which is yet to take off, it could popularise pilgrimages and other forms of spiritual tourism in the country, including adventure-based tourism.

Coming to wellness and wellbeing tourism, he said that Bhutan had been until now promoted as a destination with a unique culture and pristine nature but had much more to offer.

Dorji Dhradhul said that with Bhutan being known as the land of medicinal herbs in its olden days, peaceful surroundings, and with GNH, Bhutan makes a great potential destination for these travellers to reflect, relax and rest.

“We would work to expand on that new initiative and take Brand Bhutan to the next level,” he said. “For now, we can only wish the lone tourist speedy recovery,” Dorji Dhradhul said.