A few months back I made a list of my top-ten list of countries I want to visit. The tiny green country of Bhutan did not make the list. Moreover, on ITKT, there are some 5000 stories with exactly ½ story about Bhutan (a single blog entry, sans photo).
For those who have never heard of Bhutan, the country is nothing more than a forested green dot smushed between neighboring super-powers, China and India. Yesterday, I had little information about the place. I could find Bhutan on a map and that the national sport is archer. I also thought it was a complicated and an expensive hassle to visit.
However, tonight changed everything as Bhutan Tourism made its way to Los Angeles on its first leg of a U.S. road show. This means Bhutan Tourism is meeting with the press and travel industry folks across the U.S. (only three stops, so it could be considered more of a mini road show).
During their stop in Los Angeles, I was fortunate enough to trap a couple of Bhutanese dignitaries for some Q and A about tourism and their country. While there are a lot of misconceptions, I found out that the number one foreign visitors to Bhutan come from the US. I also discovered that visa can be applied for online and they are only 20 bucks. There are 40 different cultural festivals held throughout the year. Most visitors leave for the countryside where they will find Matahama Buddhism, traditional culture thriving and 100% English speaking.
The only curious information I came away with is that visitors cannot just show up rent a car and bounce around the Bhutanese countryside on their own and must have a local tour operator confirming a traveler’s stay (although home stays and free time to explore are part of a typical Bhutan visit). If I were to make an educated guess, I would say travel restrictions have to do with maintaining Bhutan’s GNH (Gross National Happiness), strong national identity, unique culture and spiritual outlook on life.
However there are over 100 tour operators in the country and put together packages for interested travelers. I now need to update my top ten list.
For now, it looks like Bhutan will be courting travel agents and tour operators in Los Angeles and New York. So while I was happy to be one of the few journalists attending in Los Angeles, it is unlikely I will get an invite to share thoughts on Bhutan firsthand. Still gears in my head are grinding thinking about making my way to Bhutan one of these days.