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Overseas Security Advisory Council
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Bhutan 2020 Crime & Safety Report

This is an annual report produced in conjunction with the Regional Security Office at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India, which oversees security for U.S. interests in Bhutan. OSAC encourages travelers to use this report to gain baseline knowledge of security conditions in Bhutan. For more in-depth information, review OSAC’s Bhutan country webpage for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password. 

Travel Advisory

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Bhutan at Level 1, indicating travelers should exercise normal precautions. Review OSAC’s report, Understanding the Consular Travel Advisory System

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Crime Threats

There is minimal risk from crime in Thimphu. There is relatively little crime in Bhutan. Most crime in Bhutan is in Thimphu. Take reasonable precautions when visiting major towns and, in particular, when going out at night. There has been a stark uptick in the number of reported rape cases, drug and alcohol abuse, and marijuana-related arrests. Bhutan attributes its 95% national increase in crime to the high rate of youth unemployment in population centers, and to a change in policy in 2016 that made crime registration mandatory. The government aims to decrease the high unemployment rate that has caused the local economy to stagnate and crime to increase. Reports of burglaries, theft, robbery, stolen vehicles, and assault related to skin color, ethnic origin, and religion have also increased in recent years.

Cars left parked along roads are a major problem within Thimphu. The city has responded by procuring CCTV cameras and investing in electric patrol cars.

Review OSAC’s reports, All That You Should Leave Behind, Hotels: The Inns and Outs and Considerations for Hotel Security.

Cybersecurity Issues

Review OSAC’s reports, Cybersecurity Basics, Best Practices for Maximizing Security on Public Wi-Fi, Traveling with Mobile Devices: Trends & Best Practices, and Satellite Phones: Critical or Contraband?

Transportation-Safety Situation

Road Safety and Road Conditions

Bhutan has cooperated with regional partners to improve its road quality in the past decade. However, in 2018, the country experienced its highest number of vehicle accidents in seven years and the highest number of traffic-related deaths in 13 years. Driver error accounted for 85% of accidents. Government statistics attribute 7% of road accidents in Bhutan to drunk driving. Road conditions in Bhutan range between fair and poor. Roadways along mountainous terrain, with numerous hairpin bends and steep declines pose significant dangers to drivers. Snow and rain during the monsoon seasons, as well as earthquakes can cause landslides.

Review OSAC’s reports, Road Safety AbroadDriving Overseas: Best Practices, and Evasive Driving Techniques; and read the State Department’s webpage on driving and road safety abroad. 

 Public Transportation Conditions

To limit short tourist visits, Bhutan requires that visitors pay a daily fee that covers accommodation, transport, guide, food, and entry fees. There are no available car rental services.

A public bus service operates in most major urban centers with routes, fare, and timetables available online. Buses in Bhutan travel in difficult road conditions, and are often in poor condition. Visitors should opt to use the transportation provided by their visitor fee.

For more information, review OSAC’s Report, Security in Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights.

Aviation/Airport Conditions

As there is no direct commercial air service to the United States by carriers registered in Bhutan, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not assessed the government of Bhutan’s Civil Aviation Authority for compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) aviation safety standards. Find further information on the FAA’s safety assessment page.

Paro International Airport (PBH) is the primary point of entry into Bhutan. There have been no reports of items stolen from checked baggage. Maintain awareness of belongings at all times, use Transportation Security Administration (TSA) approved locks, and retrieve checked bags as soon as possible.

Terrorism Threat

There is minimal risk from terrorism in Thimphu.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

Civil Unrest

There is minimal risk from political violence in Thimphu. During the 1990s, Bhutan expelled over 100,000 Lhotshampa from the country due to demographic and cultural grievances. While ethnic-Lhotshampas remain in Bhutan, the total number is unknown. The majority of the expelled Lhotshampas have integrated into the populations of neighboring countries, but several refugee camps remain active in Nepal. There have been no reports of political violence associated with Lhotshampas in recent years.

Review OSAC’s report, Surviving a Protest.

There have been border disputes in Doka La, including in 2017 when China attempted to extend road construction onto the Doklam Plateau southward into Bhutan. Indian troops moved into Bhutan to prevent the construction, and a standoff between India and China ensued. The standoff resolved peacefully, but the border dispute has not resolved.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

As a mountainous nation, Bhutan is exposed to landslides, earthquakes, droughts, and floods. While there was a major earthquake in 2009, Bhutan is not known for frequent seismic activity compared to neighboring countries. Monsoon rains that run from June through August can cause flooding and landslides on mountainous roads, creating treacherous passes for vehicles and cutting off access to south Bhutan in many areas.

Critical Infrastructure

Implementation of fire safety measures are either absent or minimal. Many buildings in Bhutan do not have fire alarms or fire suppression equipment in close proximity or at all. Review OSAC’s Report, Fire Safety Abroad.

Economic Concerns/Intellectual Property Theft

Bhutan is member of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) but not the WTO, or any organization protecting intellectual property rights. As a result, the frequency of pirated items has not declined; stores may sell pirated copies of movies, television shows, music, counterfeit clothing, jewelry, and other luxury goods.

4G/WiMAX networks now cover well over half of the country. Fixed broadband penetration remains low due to the preeminence of the mobile platform.

Bhutan uses the ngultrum (BTN) as its currency along with the Indian rupee. Merchants generally accept Indian rupees for purchases in Bhutan, although most shopkeepers and businesses do not accept Indian rupees in high denominations. ATMs are accessible in Paro and Thimphu, but can be unreliable. Exercise caution, as credit card fraud and the use of card skimming devices do occur. Review OSAC’s reports, The Overseas Traveler’s Guide to ATM Skimmers & Fraud and Taking Credit,

Personal Identity Concerns

Bhutan is a very religious and conservative country; men and women dress modestly. When conducting business, traveling to Dzongs, and sightseeing, semi-formal dress is preferable.

Although there are no laws that explicitly prohibit consensual same-sex sexual activity, laws against “sodomy or any other sexual conduct that is against the order of nature” exist. Under the penal code, a person can receive prison terms of as long as one year for engaging in such acts. There have been no reported cases of such charges. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for LGBTI+ travelers. 

While in Bhutan, individuals with disabilities may find accessibility and accommodation very different from what you find in the United States. Persons with physical disabilities living in or traveling to the country may find that Bhutan lacks the necessary infrastructure to accommodate their disability. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for travelers with disabilities.

Drug-related Crimes

Alcohol remains the most serious addiction in Bhutan. A recent government report found that alcoholism is responsible for over 50% of patient deaths in hospitals. In 2017, police arrested around 600 people in Thimphu in connection with the abuse, possession, and illegal transaction of controlled substances. The National Statistics Bureau of Bhutan notes that 40% of youth-committed crimes occur under the influence of alcohol. Tobacco sales are illegal in Bhutan and carry a fine and possible jail time.

The most common illegal drugs in Bhutan are amphetamines and benzodiazepines imported from India. Authorities strictly enforce drug-possession laws. Penalties for possession of any amount includes fines and possible jail time.

Other Issues

Review OSAC’s report, Picture This: Dos and Don’ts for Photography.

Bhutanese customs authorities enforce strict regulations concerning temporary importation into or export from Bhutan of items such as firearms, ammunition, explosives and military supplies; narcotics and drugs (except medically prescribed drugs); tobacco products; wildlife products, especially those of endangered species; and antiques. Read the State Department’s webpage on customs and import restrictions for information on what you cannot take into or out of other countries.

Police Response

The police emergency line in Bhutan is 113. The ability of local police to assist victims of crime is limited due to lack of response vehicles, radios, and other essential equipment. For administrative calls to local fire and police posts, dial +975 02-322347/021 in Thimphu or +975 02-271459 in Paro.

Arrested or detained U.S. citizens should comply with police requests, and contact American Citizen Services section in New Delhi at +91-011-2419-8000. Download the State Department’s Crime Victims Assistance brochure

Report all incidents of crime to the local police authorities. Remain calm and polite when interacting with the police to avoid misunderstandings. You may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you or if you take pictures of certain buildings. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report Picture This: Dos and Don’ts for Photography.

Medical Emergencies

The medical emergency line in Bhutan is 112. Medical facilities in the populated areas in Bhutan such as Thimphu and Paro are available but may be limited or unavailable in rural areas. The National Referral Hospital in Thimphu offers most general medical services and some advanced services. Find contact information for available medical services and available air ambulance services on the U.S. Embassy website

Carry adequate supplies of any needed prescription medicines, along with copies of prescriptions, the generic name of the drugs, and a supply of preferred over-the-counter medications. Review OSAC’s report, Traveling with Medication.

While Bhutanese citizens receive universal healthcare by the government, international visitors must pay for services. Doctors and hospitals expect immediate cash payment for health services. A medical evacuation (medevac) can be very expensive and severely limited by the poor condition of ambulances in Bhutan. Treks in Bhutan can take visitors days or weeks away from the nearest medical facility. Limited helicopter evacuation from remote areas in Bhutan is available at the traveler’s expense. The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi can also help arrange evacuations through private companies at the traveler’s expense. The U.S. Department of State strongly recommends purchasing international health insurance before traveling internationally. Review the State Department’s webpage on insurance overseas

Visitors planning to trek in Bhutan should pay special attention to the risk of altitude illness. Altitude sickness is a risk above 8,000 feet; travelers to that altitude should consult an appropriate health care provider 4-6 weeks before their trip. Review OSAC’s report, Traveling in High Altitude.

The Government of Bhutan recommends that visitors obtain tetanus, typhoid, and hepatitis A inoculations before traveling to Bhutan. The CDC recommends Hepatitis B, Japanese Encephalitis, and rabies vaccines for prolonged stays for people at risk. The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Bhutan.

HIV/AIDS entry restrictions exist for visitors to and foreign residents of Bhutan. For stays longer than two weeks, applicants must present the results of an HIV/AIDS test completed within the six months prior to their visit. Bhutanese officials can also administer a test by upon arrival. 

Review OSAC’s reports, The Healthy Way, Traveling with Medication, I’m Drinking What in My Water?, Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad, and Health 101: How to Prepare for Travel.

OSAC Country Council Information

There is no OSAC Country Council in Bhutan. Contact OSAC’s South & Central Asia team with any questions.

U.S. Embassy Contact Information

The United States has no official diplomatic relations with Bhutan, and therefore no diplomatic or consular presence in Thimphu. The U.S. Embassy in India is responsible for issues involving U.S. visitors to Bhutan.

U.S. Embassy New Delhi, Shantipath, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi 110021, India

Hours of Operation: Monday-Friday, 0900-1700

Tel: (+91) (11) 2419-8000

Website: http://in.usembassy.gov

Helpful Information 

 Before you travel, consider the following resources: 

 OSAC Risk Matrix 

·         OSAC Travelers Toolkit 

·         State Department Traveler’s Checklist 

·         Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP)

·         Bhutan Country Information Sheet

 

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