Bhutan welcomes everyone

TWO years ago, Penny George “couldn’t have located Bhutan on a map.” But after hearing friends rave about their trip to the tiny Buddhist kingdom tucked in the Himalayas, Ms. George, president of a foundation that promotes holistic medicine, was hooked. This fall, she and her husband made the long journey from their home in Minneapolis to Bhutan’s sole airport, then spent seven days on a guided tour, trekking into virgin forests, tiptoeing into temples and passing through villages where men and women still go about in traditional dress. “Bhutan has bubbled up in the collective consciousness,” said Ms. George. “I just felt like I had to go.” Move over, Cambodia.

Bhutan is the new must-see destination in southern Asia. With Tibet in the grip of Communist China and Nepal deemed unsafe by the United States State Department, this peaceful nation half the size of Indiana is emerging as a big draw, attracting those in search of a spiritual journey, a hiking adventure — or just a chance to experience a place before the rest of the world gets there. The number of visitors to Bhutan, as small as a few thousand not long ago, increased to 9,000 last year, a third of them Americans.

Travel agents report an upswing in interest in Bhutan, and tour operators like Abercrombie & Kent are adding both trekking and cultural trips to their rosters. “Among those who have been everywhere, seen everything,” said Rok Klancnik of the World Tourism Organization, a United Nations agency based in Madrid, “interest in Bhutan is growing.” But why? How did a place with one main road, and only five months of prime travel weather, catapult to the cutting edge of high-end tourism? And how, indeed, does any destination suddenly appear on the radar screen? Bhutan — a Brigadoon of astonishing beauty — has done what it takes to become a travel hot spot: CREATE A MYSTIQUE — Never gave Bhutan much thought until recently? You’re not alone. Until 1972 outsiders weren’t even allowed into the hermetic kingdom sandwiched between China and India.

That year, Bhutan invited foreign dignitaries to the coronation of the present king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, and roads, lodges and an airfield were built to accommodate the guests. Once that basic infrastructure was in place, the country began, in 1974, to admit tourists — but only a select few. The lesson, according to Lisa Lindblad, a New York travel agent, was: “If you keep something out of the offering, it captures the imagination, it develops a mystique.” “It’s difficult to get to, obviously, and there’s very little in the way of infrastructure, which is part of the reason people want to go there,” said George Morgan-Grenville, president of Abercrombie & Kent Inc. “I think what you’re seeing in Bhutan is the early adopters. These are the people that want to travel to a destination before anybody else gets there.