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Speech by Ambassador Sonam Tobgay at the B2B Tourism Event in Sydney on 18 August 2023

Ladies and gentlemen, eight months ago, the Embassy was delighted to organize an event in Sydney to announce the reopening of Bhutan for tourism after Covid. And today I’m excited to be back here to attend a second Bhutan tourism event that brings together tour operators from Bhutan and Australia to explore mutually beneficial travel opportunities.

In this regard, I commend Mr. Tashi Dorji and his wife, Lhaki, of L&B Global Entertainment, Mr. Tenzin Gyamtsho of B2B Events, and Ms. Deanne Scanlan of Enticing Destinations based in Queensland, for their hard work and meticulous planning to organize today’s event.

I thank the Australian Travel Operators for your interest to attend this B2B event to engage with your Bhutanese counterparts.

Let me extend a warm welcome to all the Bhutanese travel operators to Australia, and wish all of you success to get more Australians to visit Bhutan.

Bhutan’s journey with tourism began five decades ago in 1974 when we first opened our doors to tourists coinciding with the coronation of the Fourth King of Bhutan. This was indeed significant as Bhutan had only emerged from self-imposed isolation a decade earlier. Until then, Bhutan was largely a mystery that had captured the imagination of the few foreigners who had the privilege of visiting the country as official visitors.

In opening up the country, the King and the Government adopted a policy of “Low Volume, High Value” tourism whereby each tourist paid US$ 130 per day for an all inclusive tour. Looking back, there could not have been a wiser approach. The King had a clear vision for sustainable tourism long before the concept became trendy. Our main purpose of starting tourism was to earn revenue and to introduce Bhutan’s culture to the rest of the world.

Therefore, it was in October 1974 that Bhutan welcomed its first group of tourists comprising 8 Americans, 5 Spaniards and 1 Argentinean. These 14 people were true adventurers as they had to take a long arduous journey into Bhutan by road as we had no airlines then. What had attracted them was the timeless folklore and cultural treasures of Bhutan that they had heard or read about.

Like the first 14 tourists, it was either the allure of a last Shangri La or a unique kingdom in the Himalayas that attracted hundreds of more tourists in the following years. However, it was only from 1983, when Bhutan started the operation of its national airline, Drukair, that tourism received a major boost. It made it far easier for more tourists to travel in and out of Bhutan.

From 287 tourists in the first year when the Government earned a total revenue of US$420,000, the numbers gradually increased each year. From 2010, in order to capitalize on the increasing purchasing power of the people of India and the middle class in other South Asian countries, Bhutan attracted large numbers of tourists from the region. And by 2019, just before the Covid pandemic, the tourist numbers significantly increased to 316,000, which is equivalent to 39% of Bhutan’s population. The revenue earnings for the Government had also reached US$226 million. 

While these figures looked impressive, our decision to increase tourist numbers from 2010 onwards had allowed the tourism sector to grow organically, and instead of attracting more affluent people, this had inadvertently led to a rapid increase in low budget tourists from the South Asian region. And by 2019 before Covid, there were growing signs that Bhutan’s tourism industry was heading in the wrong direction. While in the past we talked about mass tourism taking place elsewhere, we suddenly came to realize that we were actually witnessing the onset of mass tourism ourselves. Of course, there was a revenue increase. But at what cost and was it worth it? People realized the costs were beyond the revenues earned. We were facing problems of overcrowding, littering and the quality of services were being affected.

To address this challenge, the Government after consultations with all stakeholders, introduced through Parliament a Sustainable Development Fee of Nu.1,200, which is equivalent to A$22, per person per day for regional tourists from July 2020. Here, I would like to mention that due to the bilateral arrangements between Bhutan with India, Bangladesh and the Maldives, we have visa free travel with these countries. But, with this legislation, they are now required to pay Nu. 1,200 per day.

Then, Covid happened! With the start of the pandemic in early 2020, Bhutan shut its borders to fight the disease and like the rest of the world, tourism in Bhutan also came to a standstill. Without a single tourist in Bhutan during the Covid period, the tourism sector was adversely impacted. On the positive side, it provided the nation a period of deep introspection when we could rethink our relationship with tourism. A period to develop new policies and plans for the country. In particular, on how we can invest in creating sustainable opportunities in tourism for our youth and into the future. 

The pandemic years also provided an uninterrupted period when we could upgrade our tourism facilities. For instance, our hiking trails were improved; tourist hotels and facilities were upgraded; standards and certification processes for tourism service providers were enhanced; and employees were upskilled.

After much introspection and deliberations, when Bhutan reopened to tourism a year ago in September 2022, we launched a New Tourism Strategy underpinned by the following:

Firstly, there are enhancements to Sustainable Development Fees (SDF) i.e. the SDF fees were raised from US$65 to US$200 per person per night. The previous rate of US$250 of which US$65 was SDF has been removed. Now visitors have the flexibility to engage service providers directly, or book flights, hotels and tours in Bhutan by themselves. In the recent months, there has been some revision with package offers on the SDF fees. Our Bhutanese tour operators would be able to provide you with details. There are also SDF waivers for Familiarization Trips to Bhutan for foreign tour operators, hoteliers and travel writers.

The SDF fees raised will fund all activities related to the tourism sector, such as infrastructure upgrades, forestry projects, electrifying transport, cleaning & maintaining trails, upskilling of workers, and health and education activities.

Secondly, as mentioned earlier, there are major tourism infrastructure upgrades.

And third is the elevation of guest experience. We know that with the increased SDF also brings expectations. Therefore, with all the work done in the past few years, Bhutan is committed to enhancing the guest experience through providing good quality of services and personal care. In essence, we would like to offer and showcase Bhutan’s distinctive spiritual, cultural and natural heritage, as a unique and distinctive experience for visitors. At the same time, generate revenue from tourism that benefits the whole country.

Coinciding with the launch of Bhutan’s new tourism strategy, a new brand for Bhutan i.e. Believe was also unveiled. Brand Bhutan aims to capture the optimism and renewed ambition of Bhutan as it reopened for tourism, as well as communicating our promise and plans for our young citizens. Our new tagline, Believe, reflects this determined focus on the future, as well as the transformative journey experienced by our guests. So our new Brand is intertwined with the tourism sector. In summary, this has been the 50 year journey of tourism in Bhutan.

With regard to Australian visitors to Bhutan, the numbers are not as promising as we would’ve liked. For instance, we only received 2,585 Australians in 2019 before the pandemic. Since we opened up last year, only 774 Australians have visited Bhutan. These numbers are extremely low. I’d like to share that there are now 27,000 Bhutanese citizens living all across Australia. Ideally, to match the numbers and to reciprocate, Bhutan would like to see 27,000 Australians visiting Bhutan as tourists each year.

Towards this end, the Embassy has tried to reach out to interested segments of Australian travelers, such as high-end and ultra high-end travelers, adventure travelers as well as new indulgers, as these are the groups who we feel would enjoy the Bhutan experience even more.

Let me conclude by mentioning that as was experienced by the first 14 tourists, Bhutan continues to captivate visitors with the striking natural beauty of its mountains and monasteries, its rich biodiversity, pristine forests, crystal clear rivers and its turquoise colored glacial lakes. Equally important is the warm welcome and genuine hospitality of the Bhutanese extended to every visitor. And being the only country that uses happiness as a guiding principle and one of only three countries that is carbon-negative, Bhutan, I Believe, truly has much to offer to interested travelers.

We, therefore, look forward to working closely with each one of you so that more Australians can visit to experience Bhutan as we Bhutanese would want them to. 

Thank You and Tashi Delek!

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