A tale of two airports in Bhutan


As the slow pace towards a pre-pandemic world begins, two of the country’s domestic airports are going through their own challenges and transformations.

After the opening of Bhutan’s borders on the 23rd of September, things seem to look better for both the tourism and aviation industry. Around 6000 tourists have since visited Bhutan since the opening of the country, out of which 2000 tourists have visited under the newly revised Sustainable Daily Fee (SDF). After almost two years of the closing of Bhutan’s borders, the frequency of flights and passengers seems to be on the rise. 

The first Plan for a Domestic Airport in the country, Yonphula airport (YON) dates to 1960s when it was first constructed as an airstrip by Border Roads Organizations. However, it remained largely unchanged and unused until 2011, when major renovation works took place and the country was gifted with a second Domestic Airport. The airport is situated at an elevation 2,700 above mean sea level wit the runway measuring 4154 ft, The airport has been operation since then and it remains an important link between eastern and western Bhutan.


Yonphula Airport Runway

However, the two other local airports have stood the test of time and many setbacks and are poised for a bigger and brighter future

Batpalathang Airport (BUT)


Batpalathang Runway, 2700 m above sea level

Located in central Bhutan in Bumthang Dzongkhag and proposed as one of the main objectives of the 10th Five-year plan in 2008, the airport was finally operational in 2011, overcoming many infrastructural, environmental, and funding challenges. Both Druk Air and Bhutan Airlines conducted the inaugural flights from Paro Airport to Batpalathang airport to coincide with the national day on the 17th of December 2011. The airport is located at an elevation of 2700 m and the runway extends to 1200 meters.

Although initially, the passenger load on the domestic ATR flights were low, it eventually picked up momentum becoming popular with tourists who wanted to save time driving on the East-West highway which was at the time going through a major widening project. At its peak, there were at times 3 flights in a day between Paro and Bumthang, with flights booked months in advance during the peak festival months in eastern and central Bhutan.

Being of the busiest domestic airports in Bhutan, Batpalathang Airport is currently undergoing a major renovation to serve not only the domestic market but with an eye on the regional market as well. With a budget of 240 million Ngultrum, the Department of Air Transport (DoAT) has begun its work on extending the runway and resurfacing work that is expected to be completed by October this year. Once completed, the expansion of the runway will help increase the passenger-carrying capacity of the ATR airplanes that service this sector.

Apart from works being carried out on the runway, another major project is underway. With the help of the Asian Development Bank, a new international standard, terminal building is being constructed with air traffic control, security officials, fire fighting trucks and other requirements that are needed to certify an international airport being planned as well.

With all these in place it will a smoother transition should the decision to make the airport into an international airport. Potential cities that could connect to Batpalathang airport include Kathmandu, Kolkata, Guwahati, and Dhaka in the region.

Gelephu Airport

Located at an elevation of 300 m and the runway measuring 1500 meters, Gelephu Airport was originally planned as an international airport. The Airport was planned to boost tourism in the region and take advantage of its proximity to the Indian border and by being in the same region as the Royal Manas National Park. However, the plan was abandoned by 2008 and the Gelephu Airport would be domestic airport instead.

The airport was inaugurated on the 25th of October 2012 with a flight from Paro to Gelephu. Due to funding problems and a lack of certification from the Department of Civil Aviation, there were no regular flights in and out of Gelephu Airport. After the completion of the terminal building and a control tower in 2015, Drukair began its domestic operations to Gelephu shortly after. After a year of operations and mounting losses piling on Drukair, it was announced that the airline would cease its regular Gelephu Operations.

Gelephu Terminal Building, Photo by Kuensel Online

The future seemed uncertain for Gelephu Airport, but operations once again began in November 2017 as the Government decided to provide subsidies to Drukair to continue operations. Once again, in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, flights to and from Gelephu were cancelled as Sarpang District was identified as a high-risk area due to rising covid cases.

With a series of downsides ever since its inauguration, things look to change for the better for Gelephu airport. Work is now underway in Gelephu airport to convert it into an International Airport. Studies on the feasibility, soil, and other technical requirements by a Japanese consultancy group with their Bhutanese counterparts were completed in 2021.

The Airport will serve to receive flights that have been diverted from Paro International Airport due to inclement weather. Since the country has only one international airport in Paro, it suffers losses when diverting flights. Gelephu airport is expected to be used mainly for Cargo planes.

Even the domestic flights are expected to pick up and be profitable for Airlines with the Gelephu Dry port project being scheduled to be completed by 2024. There will likely be an increase in the number of people flying between Gelephu and Paro as Gelephu becomes a commercial hub in the next few years.

As of now, bold and ambitious plans have been laid out for both Gelephu airport and Batpalathang airport, and only time will tell whether they will be achieved. As Bhutan undergoes a momentous change in its tourism policy, the success of the two airports is now directly tied to the success of the newly implemented policy.

Related Posts

Bhutan revises its tourism policy to redefine High Value Low...

Visitors to Bhutan will now have to pay more than triple the previous Sustainable Development Fees (SDF).

Jul 20, 2022 21:44

Bhutan is reopening a sacred ancient route for tourism after 60...

Following 2 years of extensive restoration, Bhutan is set to open its sacred Trans Bhutan Trail to travellers and...

Jan 26, 2022 14:50

Bhutan Removes Mandatory Travel Insurance for Tourists

Bhutan's Department of Tourism has announced the elimination of the compulsory travel insurance obligation for tourists.

Apr 26, 2024 10:03

Alii Palau Airlines Inaugural Flight From Singapore to Palau via...

On November 23, 2023, Alii Palau Airlines made history with its inaugural flight to Palau.

Dec 04, 2023 10:32

Singapore to Palau: Alii Palau Airlines Launches Historic Route...

You can now visit the Palau Paradise directly from Singapore!

Oct 27, 2023 16:17

Bhutan's aviation pioneer: The story of Jamair and the early days...

In 1952, Bhutan initially proposed the establishment of a fully equipped aerodrome in Punakha and the acquisition of a...

Sep 13, 2023 11:15



Singaporean couple donates 400-year-old Buddha statue to Bhutan in late son's name

On May 9th, a 400-year-old Buddha statue embarked on its voyage from Singapore to the Kingdom of Bhutan, catching a 9 a.m. flight.

May 13, 2024 13:31

Bhutan Hosted Summit Targeting $1 billion USD for Tiger Landscapes Conservation

On Apr 22 - Apr 23, in conjunction with Earth Day 2024, Bhutan's Royal Government hosted the Sustainable Finance for Tiger Landscapes...

Apr 24, 2024 10:34


Rifles and Rituals: Satire and Societal Shifts in Bhutan as Portrayed in 'The Monk and The Gun

Pawo Choyning Dorji, whose film "The Monk and the Gun" offers insight into the Himalayan nation's modernization process.

Feb 20, 2024 11:04

All You Need to Know About Gelephu Mindfulness City

The kingdom of Bhutan is planning to develop a "mindfulness city" covering about 2.5% of its land, which is larger than the size of...

Feb 08, 2024 10:42


Brand Bhutan: Karma Yangchen

Karma Yangchen, a distinguished artisan from Bhutan exemplifies a profound commitment to the art of handwoven textiles.

Dec 14, 2023 10:22

Brand Bhutan: Bhutan Herbal Tea

Bhutan Herbal Tea is the brainchild of two Bhutanese individuals who first crossed paths in New York during a Bhutanese New Year gathering...

Nov 25, 2023 13:56


Bhutan Cricket's New Milestone: The Inaugural Indoor Cricket Academy

The Bhutan Cricket Council Board (BCCB) inaugurated its inaugural indoor cricket academy on 20th December, with the objective of ensuring...

Dec 21, 2023 14:57

Paro FC Clinches Third Consecutive Victory in BOB Bhutan Premier League

Paro FC has once again claimed the BOB Bhutan Premier League championship, marking their third consecutive title victory during the season's...

Dec 12, 2023 10:26


Bhutan Removes Mandatory Travel Insurance for Tourists

Bhutan's Department of Tourism has announced the elimination of the compulsory travel insurance obligation for tourists.

Apr 26, 2024 10:03

Alii Palau Airlines Inaugural Flight From Singapore to Palau via Drukair

On November 23, 2023, Alii Palau Airlines made history with its inaugural flight to Palau.

Dec 04, 2023 10:32


Chunipa Losar: Bhutan's Timeless Celebration of Traditions and Offerings

Chunipa Losar is a day of offerings, a moment when communities come together to express gratitude, seek blessings, and strengthen bonds.

Jan 12, 2024 12:31

Bhutan's Time-Honored Tradition: Exploring the Nyilo Season and the Lolay Ritual

Approximately 750 children recently took part in the traditional practice known as "lolay" in Bhutan, marking the beginning of the Nyilo...

Jan 04, 2024 14:18

Subscribe to our newsletter

Never miss out on new happenings and news stories!

Download Daily Bhutan Mobile App

Connecting with us just got easier!