About the Author: Paul Herman is Chief of American Citizen Services at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India.“Nail-biting!” “Gut-dropping!” “Hair-raising!” Those are just some of the words used to describe the descent into Bhutan's only international airport, which involves weaving in and out of narrow Himalayan valleys before touching down -- slightly -- on a tarmac that's still at 7,300 feet. After having taken the ride myself, I can confirm: those are understatements!
My journey was just one of a handful that consular officers from the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi have embarked on over the past year or so in an ongoing effort to strengthen ties with Bhutan's government on consular issues. Bhutan and the United States do not have formal relations. Informal contact is maintained through the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, which covers citizen services from replacing lost or stolen passports to communicating with local police in the event of an arrest, assistance with medical care, possible evacuation in the event of injuries, and even the repatriation of remains. Developing these long-distance relationships with the Bhutanese government is therefore key if we are to provide effective assistance to Americans.
These efforts have become all the more important after Bhutan announced plans to boost its annual tourist numbers from around 30,000 annually to 100,000. If trends hold, this could mean 20,000-25,000 American tourists visiting Bhutan every year. Americans make up the largest number of tourists in Bhutan. Last year 4,786 (20 percent of all tourists) visited, down from 6,941 the year before. According to Bhutan's Tourism Council, Americans spend more time in Bhutan -- and, consequently, more money -- than tourists from any other country.
In meetings with contacts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Immigration Department, Bhutan's Tourism Council, and the country's Attorney General, we discussed ways the two governments could work together to ensure Americans traveling in Bhutan would have safe, enjoyable trips and access to consular services should they be needed. All the officials were exceedingly gracious and eager to assist. In fact, as a sign of the growing cooperation that these trips have engendered, Bhutanese officials will observe a Mission-wide crisis management exercise later this month.
Finally, I met with members of the small but tight-knit American community in Bhutan, learned a little about life in the land of “Gross National Happiness,” where wealth is not measured in monetary terms alone, and delivered long-awaited consular services to citizens who otherwise would have to travel to U.S. embassies in New Delhi or Bangkok. Gut-dropping stuff? Not so much. But protecting the lives and interests of American citizens abroad, providing them with essential services, and helping them engage the world are among the highest priorities of our State Department, even in far away places like Bhutan. And that is not at all an understatement!
For more information about consular services, please visit travel.state.gov.