South Asia

Bhutan looks to raise annual tourist numbers to 100,000

Image caption Bhutan fiercely guards its ancient traditions and only began to open up to outsiders in the 1970s

The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, so far wary of mass tourism, is looking to triple its annual number of visitors.

Prime Minister Jigme Thinley has outlined an expansion plan for the sector, setting a target of 100,000 tourists by 2012.

About 30,000 tourists are expected to enter the picturesque kingdom this year.

Bhutan, which fiercely guards its ancient traditions, only began to open up to outsiders in the 1970s.

"We want to expand this sector without compromising on our policy of high quality, low impact and not volume tourism," the prime minister told a news conference.

Tall target?

The prime minister did not clarify whether the 100,000 target would include regional tourists, like those from India.

The Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) said it would be possible to bring in up to 60,000 non-Indian tourists by 2012, but perhaps not more.

"If it's only dollar-paying tourists, it seems a rather tall target," an ABTO official said.

Indian tourists pay in rupees as it is the same value as the Bhutanese currency, the Ngultrum.

Almost all other foreign visitors to Bhutan must pay a daily minimum tariff of between $200 (£130) and $250.

Prime Minister Thinley says that fee will remain.

The kingdom, which held its first parliamentary elections in 2008, imposes no limit on the number of Indian tourists.

But it has so far kept a select entry policy for foreigners, who must travel as part of a pre-arranged guided tour.

The Tourism Council of Bhutan is planning to re-brand the kingdom as "the last Shangri-La", a reference to a fictional Himalayan utopia.

New destinations within the country are being opened to tourism, while hotels and credit card infrastructure are to be upgraded.

Meanwhile, more than 250 acres of land in south, east and centre of the kingdom have been earmarked for tourism resorts.

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