Today: Bhutan & Japan are reopening to international travelers
The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, regarded as one of the world’s most exclusive and spectacular travel destinations, closed its borders during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the constitutional monarchy of less than 800,000 people has reported fewer than 60,000 infections and only 21 deaths. But today, after a closure of around two and half years, Bhutan has reopened to international travelers and has introduced a few changes that aim to facilitate future visits to the country. For example, visitors no longer have to come through a tour operator and can book directly with hotels, whereas before they could choose only from the packages offered by their operators. Travelers will also be issued a 90-day visa, which can be applied for online, with the flexibility to come at any time within that period.
But the resumption of tourism also comes with a steep rise in the tourist tax, among other changes designed to avoid overtourism and to keep Bhutan a high-end, sustainable destination. International visitors to Bhutan now have to pay a “sustainable development fee” of $200 USD a night, up from $65 per night prior to the pandemic, to gain entry. This will be on top of the costs of accommodation, guides and other services – significantly raising the price of a visit. This increase in traveler fee will support development projects within the kingdom, including towards free education and healthcare. Some of the funds will also go towards planting trees, helping tourism industry workers to gain more skills, maintaining Bhutan’s trails and more.
“Bhutan’s noble policy of high-value, low-volume tourism has existed since we started welcoming guests to our country. But its intent and spirit were watered down over the years, without us even realizing it,” said H.E. Dr. Lotay Tshering, the Prime Minister of Bhutan. “Therefore, as we reset as a nation after this pandemic, and officially open our doors to visitors today, we are reminding ourselves about the essence of the policy, the values and merits that have defined us for generations.” Bhutan opened to high-end tourists in 1974 when it received 300 visitors. The number soared to 315,600 in 2019, up 15.1% from a year earlier, raising concerns about mass tourism taking over in the nation.
Bhutan is a spectacular, unspoilt country steeped in ancient traditions and with a history that is as tall as its Himalayan mountain peaks. It’s a country where mystical Buddhism thrives, archery is the national sport, almost everyone wears national dress, and traffic lights are absent. I visited the Himalayan Kingdom prior to the pandemic and you can read my trip reports of that holiday here:
- Review: landing at the world’s most dangerous airport
- Review: Six Senses Thimpu, Bhutan
- Review: Six Senses Punakha, Bhutan
- Review: Six Senses Paro, Bhutan
- Review: Bhutan Airlines A319 Business Class from Paro to Delhi
Japan, one of the world’s last major holdouts during the pandemic, is also lifting its COVID-19 restrictions and reopening to international tourists. “We are a nation that has flourished through the free flow of people, goods and capital,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Thursday during a speech at the New York Stock Exchange. “COVID-19, of course, interrupted all of these benefits, but from October 11, Japan will relax border control measures to be on par with the U.S., as well as resume visa-free travel and individual travel.” Elaborating on the lifting of restrictions, Kishida said that “on the same day, we plan to launch a campaign to offer domestic travel discounts and event discounts to residents of Japan and hope that many citizens will take advantage of the offer to support the hotel, travel and entertainment sectors that have suffered enormous blows during the pandemic.”
Since June, visitors were again allowed in Japan but strict restrictions were in place, which were deterring most travelers. For example, visitors had to obtain visas to enter the country and then adhere to planned, package tours. As a result, only 8,000 travelers visited Japan in July, compared to more than 80,000 visitors a day before the pandemic. But from October 11, Japan will restore individual tourism and visa-waiver travel to people from certain countries. At the same time, it will also scrap a daily cap on arrivals, currently set at 50,000, and may revise regulations on hotels, allowing them to refuse guests who don’t abide by infection controls, such as mask wearing, during an outbreak, domestic media reported. Japan is hoping that the economy will be boosted through international tourism, as the Japanese Yen is currently at a 24-year low, making it a great time to visit Japan.
Japan is a fascinating country that should be on your bucket list, since it represents a unique and inspiring blend of traditional and ultramodern cultures. Japan’s colorful shrines, fascinating geisha districts and age-old Buddhist temples stand witness to the country’s rich cultural heritage and ancient history. From the famous monuments in the stunning imperial city of Kyoto to the bustling capital of Tokyo with its dizzying dimensions and flashing neon lights, there is no shortage of major attractions to visit and explore in the land of the rising sun. I visited the country in 2016 and you can read my trip reports of that holiday here:
- Review: Japan Airlines B77W Business Class London to Tokyo
- Review: Amanemu
- Review: Aman Tokyo
- Review: Hyatt Regency Hakone
- Review: Park Hyatt Tokyo
- Review: St Regis Osaka
- Review: Andaz Tokyo
- Review: Ritz-Carlton Kyoto
- Review: British Airways B77W Business Class Tokyo to London