Bhutan has only one tourist, an American lady, and she simply loves the country's picture-postcard beauty and people - GulfToday

Bhutan has only one tourist, an American lady, and she simply loves the country's picture-postcard beauty and people

Bhutan 33

Fran Bak finds the gongs emotionally uplifting which help her connect with the locals.

Gulf Today Report

The coronavirus has dented tourism in several countries. However, when we talk of tourists, we talk about them in the plural. But what happens when there is just one tourist arriving in the country? Welcome to Bhutan.

San Francisco resident Fran Bak turned out to be the only traveller landing in the landlocked nation last month. She was not just the focus of attention of immigration officials when she flew into the country: she was also the star attraction for the journalists waiting at the airport.

"They photographed me getting off the plane – I was a front-page story," she laughs, according to a report in a section of the Australian media.


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For Bak, her arrival in Bhutan was a long-awaited return to a place she loved a lot. This is because Bhutan was a country that had not seen any foreign visitors for more than a year, so Bak's arrival was a cheerful sign that the nation’s tourism was facing a revival.

Tourism, which provides an income for a good number of Bhutan's 750,000 inhabitants, suddenly screeched to a halt when Bhutan shuttered 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 scheduled to last for a month. She was so enamoured of the country that she quickly extended that trip to three months and started planning her return before she flew out.

Most visitors to Bhutan – drawn by its exotic landscapes, beautiful monasteries and lush forests – stay in the country's handful of luxury lodges. But Bak chose the road less travelled. She scouted for less-frequented places and chose homestays rather than high-end hotels.

That’s because she has a different mindset. She was not concerned about creature comforts, whether there was any running water or attached bathroom. She just wanted to feel the experience of living in a village, of seeing the family light butter lamps at the altar in the home.

But her tour agency insisted on mixing the home stays with a few hotels.

" 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 spread its ominous tentacles 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, stressing 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 finally okayed.

"I got a call from the agent, 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.

Bak lost her husband in 2014. "At the age of 68, I was asking myself 'what is my purpose in life, as an elder, as a single woman?'" the report said.

Having discovered the healing power of sound meditation, she now travels with her gongs, operating as an ambassador for the non-profit DhunhAnd Foundation and playing the gongs in villages throughout Bhutan. She says the gong performances have helped her bond with the inhabitants of the land.

"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."

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