Bhutan’s Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji, in an exclusive interaction with WION, said that his country is holding discussion on railway connectivity with India, something that will “integrate trade and commerce”. This is the first ever public acknowledgement in years of the talks of railway connectivity between the two countries. Speaking to our Principal Diplomatic Correspondent Sidhant Sibal, the minister also dismissed reports of Chinese intrusions inside Bhutan’s territory and maintained that “Royal Government has categorically denied these reports on several occasions.”
He also spoke about impact of Covid on his country and the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict along with opening of his country to tourists. The country opened to international tourists in September this year after being closed to the world due to the Covid pandemic. Within these two months 14,473 tourists have already visited Bhutan. Half of these tourists, 7217, are Indian.
WION: Bhutan has opened to the world, how has the tourist inflow been?
Dr Tandi Dorji: Bhutan reopened its borders to tourists September 23, 2022 onwards with a renewed focus on the sustainability of the sector. The standards and certification process for service providers, including hotels, guides, tour operators, and drivers, as well as other businesses such as handicraft shops are being revised. The new requirements are more robust and ensure a minimum quality standard across the tourism sector. Persons employed in the industry will be required to undergo skill training where necessary. The intent is to provide quality service for our guests and enhance their experience. The inflow of visitors has been steadily increasing over the past months since the reopening, and we expect it to continue. Moreover, we are carrying out proactive and rigorous advertising and promotional activities to heighten Bhutan’s presence in the travel industry. We aim to establish Bhutan as a high value destination based on authentic experiences, Bhutanese hospitality, and interactive travel. The figures of tourism inflow are encouraging. So far, we have received more than 14000 tourists (as of 27th Nov, 14,473 tourists – 7,217 Indians and 7,256 others)
WION: Please tell us more about Bhutan’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and how India and Bhutan supported each other during the difficult times.
Dr Tandi Dorji: Bhutan’s response to the pandemic was characterised by a quick and proactive approach. The people’s morale as usual was upheld by the exemplary leadership of His Majesty The King during the difficult times and cultivation of trust by the government led by medical and health specialists and the health authorities. All sections of the society came together in solidarity and provided their support right from following the Covid protocols to providing volunteer services and other contributions. People of Bhutan followed all the health directives and cooperated to ensure the success of the Covid response. The people and the Royal Government of Bhutan are profoundly grateful to the people and the Government of India (GoI) for the unconditional and generous support provided by GoI to Bhutan in its efforts in managing the pandemic. The support of 690,000 doses of Covishield vaccine enabled Bhutan to launch the first nationwide vaccination programme in March/April last year, and GoI’s support in terms of medical supplies significantly supported Bhutan in its effective response efforts. During one of the most difficult times, India, under Prime Minister Modi provided admirable leadership to fight the virus through innovative initiatives such as SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund and Vaccine Maitri. India’s role in vaccine production and distribution, and its resolute commitment to reach out to other countries during this world crisis, was critical to Bhutan’s success in combating the challenges posed by the pandemic. The Government of India has also been very supportive in ensuring smooth passage of essential food, medical and other items all through the pandemic despite strict border control. The Government of India also supported Bhutan in evacuating stranded Bhutanese abroad and in India.
WION: Any plans to increase connectivity in the region? Any plans of a rail link between India and Bhutan?
Dr Tandi Dorji: Discussions for railway connectivity between India and Bhutan are underway. The railway initiative, which will be a historical milestone in the Bhutan-India relations, will further integrate trade and commerce as well as people to people relationships.
WION: When it comes to opening of Bhutan, a fee has been imposed on International as well as Indian tourists. Don’t you think that will be seen as something like a barrier? What is the rationale for it?
Dr Tandi Dorji: The Sustainable Development Fee is not a new levy, it is a revision of the Tourism Levy Act of Bhutan 2020. The fees for Indians has remained the same and for international tourist, it has been increased from US$ 65 to US$ 200. The increase was necessary given the fact that it had been revised only once since the 1970s when Bhutan started receiving tourists. The tourism industry in Bhutan was founded on the principle of ‘High value, Low volume’ and the SDF was introduced since the start of tourism business in the country in 1974.
Bhutan’s reopening was a good opportunity for us to reset our tourism sector and go back to our roots of ‘high value, low volume’ tourism. We have unveiled a new tourism strategy, underpinned by transformations in three key areas: enhancements to our sustainable development policies, infrastructure upgrades, and the elevation of the guest experience. We need tourism to not only benefit Bhutan economically, but socially as well, while maintaining our low, sustainable footprint. The goal of our new strategy is to create high value experiences for guests, in addition to well-paying and professional jobs for our citizens. As such, we see tourism as a vital strategic driver of long-term transformation and opportunities for our people, so we are fully invested in its success. This is our moment of evolution, and we invite our guests to become our partners in this process. Further, our country is situated in a vulnerable location that makes it highly susceptible to the impacts of climate change, therefore we need to be extra cautious of our actions and policies.
We welcome all guests to Bhutan and believe that they are well positioned to understand the value and beauty of the Himalayan region and its fragile ecosystem. The SDF funds go to the national exchequer and are allocated to various projects that enhance infrastructure, services and facilities for nationals and guests who visit Bhutan. It enables investment in preserving our culture, traditions, and heritage, and protecting our environment, as well as funding free healthcare and education.
WION: How does Bhutan see the Russia-Ukraine conflict, its impact on you?
Dr Tandi Dorji: Bhutan is a peace-loving country, firmly committed to international law for peaceful coexistence and good neighbourly relations between states, and therefore, attaches importance to the UN Charter Principles of sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of any State. Rising fuel and food prices are being felt by all countries including Bhutan. The impact is more pronounced as it comes at a time when the global economy has already been devastatingly hit by the Covid -19 Pandemic.
WION: China, another neighbour of yours has been a worry for countries in the region. How do you see ties with China, even though officially you don’t have ties with any of the P5 countries?
Dr Tandi Dorji: As neighbours, Bhutan and China have enjoyed friendly relations. Friendly engagement and cooperative exchange between us are increasing.
WION: Reports suggest China is sitting on some of the Bhutanese territory even as it claims some.
Dr Tandi Dorji: Media reports of Chinese intrusions inside Bhutan’s territory are not true and the Royal Government has categorically denied these reports on several occasions. Media reports were based on open-source information, which may not be reliable. Any issues that arise along the Bhutan-China border are resolved through dialogue based on the 1988 Guiding Principles for the Settlement of the Bhutan-China Boundary Issues and the 1998 Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity in Bhutan-China Border Areas.
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