When Fran Bak arrived in Bhutan last month, it wasn't just the immigration officials paying attention. The media were also waiting.
"They photographed me getting off the plane – I was a front-page story," she laughs.
For long-time San Francisco resident Bak, her arrival in Bhutan was a long-awaited return to a beloved destination. For Bhutan, a country that had seen no foreign visitors for more than a year, Bak's arrival was a sign that tourism was on its way back.
Tourism, which provides an income for a significant proportion of Bhutan's 750,000 inhabitants, was abruptly cut off when Bhutan closed its borders in March 2020, to protect its citizens from COVID-19. The country remains officially closed, but the government is considering applications for tourist visas on a case-by-case basis. To date, Bak is the only foreign tourist in the country.
Bak's first visit to Bhutan, in November 2019, was supposed to last for a month. She quickly extended that trip to three months and started planning her return before she flew out. "Bhutan's like a drug. It opens you up, and that's all you crave," she said.
Most visitors to Bhutan – drawn by its spectacular Himalayan landscapes, its picturesque traditional monasteries and its lush forests – stay in the country's handful of luxury lodges, run by five-star groups such as Aman and Six Senses. Bak chose a different approach, exploring less-visited regions and choosing homestays rather than hotels.
"I told the agency I booked with, My Bhutan, that I was okay if there was no running water, or no inside bathroom – I wanted those experiences of staying in a village, of seeing the family lighting butter lamps at the family altar. It's pretty powerful stuff," she says.
"My Bhutan insisted on interspersing the home stays with a few nights in hotels. They said, you have to balance it out. And it's true, sometimes you need a hot shower."
Bak describes her first experience of Bhutan as being overwhelming. "It was like being put down in Disneyland," she says. "The country is so beautiful, the people show such love and kindness. It's another way of being and loving in the world."
As COVID swept across the world, Bak realised that a return trip wasn't going to happen anytime soon. Nonetheless, she stayed in touch with her travel agent, emphasising that she still wanted to come back. "I was like a dog with a bone," she says.
The agency requested that the government grant special consideration to allow Bak to enter, a request that was reviewed and approved by the Tourism Council and other government agencies — including the COVID National Task Force.
"I got a call from My Bhutan saying, 'We can get you in but you will have to do three weeks of quarantine', which I was happy to do. I feel like they went through a lot of hoops to get me here," Bak says.
Bhutan is expecting to have 80 per cent of its adult population fully vaccinated by early October, and to open up fully for tourists in the [northern] spring, traditionally the peak tourist season. Operators such as World Expeditions already report heavy bookings for trips from February onwards.
"At present, tourism is officially closed but tourist visas are being issued on a case-by-case basis, with 14 days quarantine for vaccinated people and 21 days quarantine for the unvaccinated," says Matthew deSantis, the founder of My Bhutan.
DeSantis says the border closures were the right choice for a country where all government decisions are guided by the concept of Gross National Happiness. "The primary interest is to keep Bhutan and its people healthy and safe. His Majesty [Bhutan's King Jigme Khesar] and the government have done tremendous job of maintaining a low infection rate, which has positioned Bhutan well for a rebound in the tourism industry." At the time of writing, Bhutan has had 2596 cases of COVID and just three deaths.
Bhutan's tourism industry deliberately targets high-spending visitors, with a mandated minimum spend of $US250 ($A345) a night during peak season. Like other travellers, Bak hired a guide and driver to escort her through the country, and says that it's a way of travelling that brings immense benefits.
"You can form really deep connections," she says. "Gembo and Tashi, my guide and driver, are remarkable people – Gembo goes out on his days off and picks up garbage from the trails. They took me to their villages, they essentially adopted me. They became my friends, and then they became my family."
Bak's travels in Bhutan are part of a journey that started when she was widowed in 2014. "At the age of 64, I was asking myself 'what is my purpose in life, as an elder, as a single woman?'" Having discovered the healing power of sound meditation, she now travels with her gongs, operating as an ambassador for the non-profit DhunAnand Foundation and playing the gongs in villages throughout Bhutan. She says the gong performances have helped her connect with locals.
"It's a form of meditation, really," she says of her sound healing. "The language of music and of dance speaks to everyone. When I perform, I'm watching these faces and I see I'm making a difference in their lives, just as they make a difference in mine."
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Bhutan has had 2596 deaths from COVID-19. This should have said 2596 cases. There have been three deaths recorded in Bhutan from COVID-19.