You can visit Bhutan again – if you’re willing to cough up $200 a day in fees

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The Kingdom of Bhutan will reopen to tourists on Friday with a significant increase in the daily tourist tax.

Before the country closed its borders in March 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, travelers to Bhutan had to pay a minimum daily package rate of $200-$250 – depending on the time of year. The rate often included hotel, food, transportation, and tour guide fees, as well as a mandatory $65 sustainable development contribution.

But in late June, Bhutan passed a tourism tax law that scrapped the minimum daily package rate in favor of increasing the sustainable development fee from $65 to $200 per person per day.

Travel costs, for example for hotels and food, are not covered by the reimbursement.

The country offers families discounted fees, said Raju Rai, the CEO of Heavenly Bhutan Travels.

“It’s 50% for kids between 6-12 years old [old] and … free for kids 5 and under,” he said.

‘An active contribution’

Bhutan, and supporters of the new policy, say the move is consistent with the country’s ongoing goal to attract “high-quality, low-volume” tourism.

To experience the country — famed for offering travelers a rare glimpse of authenticity in a world riddled with tourist traps — visitors must “make an active contribution to Bhutan’s economic, social and cultural development,” according to the Tourism corporate website. Council of Bhutan.

The Tourism Council said the fees will go towards upgrading infrastructure, training travel industry workers, preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and creating jobs that provide fair wages and working conditions.

Bhutan markets itself as the only carbon negative country in the world.

Andrew Stranovsky Photography | moment | Getty Images

Sam Blyth, chairman of The Bhutan Canada Foundation and founder of the Trans Bhutan Trail, said the fees will go directly to local communities.

“The money raised by [the] The government will then be sent back to the communities and to support health care and education, which are free for all Bhutanese,” he said.

Will travelers benefit?

Travelers will also benefit from the increased rates, according to the Tourism Council. Standards and certifications for hotels and tour operators will be reviewed, which will improve travelers’ experiences, it said. In addition, travelers will have more flexibility in planning and booking their own trips, it said.

The Tourism Council notes that the minimum day package rate “had its limitations. For example, tourists often had to choose from package holidays offered by tour operators, who controlled the travel experience for them. By abolishing [it] … tourists will be able to engage their preferred service providers directly and pay for their services accordingly.”

Guides are no longer mandatory for all trips, but they are required for travelers planning to trek or go beyond the towns of Thimphu and Paro, the Council said.

Travel agents, which can get visas for travelers, also collect sustainability fees, said Sarah-Leigh Shenton, director of marketing at travel agency Red Savannah. “All administration is handled by our team and our customers don’t have to pay locally.”

Critics vs supporters

Critics argue that the increased tourist tax in Bhutan is “elitist,” further closing the door to budget travelers dreaming of visiting Bhutan.

Even more say the new policy will disproportionately affect travel agents targeting budget-friendly travelers.

Others are critical of the timing, saying the new rules will discourage travelers from visiting at a time when the country’s tourism industry is faltering after a 2.5-year border closure.

However, Bhutan’s Tourism Council said the pandemic was the right time “to reset the sector”. It also hinted that it could welcome a slow return of travelers, stating: “The gradual return of tourists will allow for the gradual improvement of infrastructure and services.”

Sam Blyth said he has spent a lot of time walking around Bhutan over the past 30 years. He is the founder of the Trans Bhutan Trail, a not-for-profit company that has helped revitalize an ancient 250-mile trail that runs through the center of the country.

Sam Blyth, Trans Bhutan Trail, Visiting Bhutan, Trekking Bhutan

Wendy Min, Trip.com’s head of government affairs for Australia and New Zealand, said she believes a hefty fee should be paid to “filter out travelers and keep things manageable.”

“For a small country, it won’t be ideal to open them up completely because you don’t want Punakha, or any of these cities, to become the next Kathmandu,” she said. “I totally understand why people would be put off by the price tag, but everyone is different and on the hunt for their own experience and memories.”

She called increased fares “the new normal” and quoted Venice, where Italian officials have indicated that day-trippers will have to pay between 3 and 10 euros ($3 and $10) to enter from January 2023.

For now, the increased rates will not apply to Indian tourists, who accounted for about 73% of all travelers to Bhutan before the pandemic, according to a report published by Bhutan in 2019.

But that can also change. Bhutan’s Tourism Council said the $15 daily fee paid by Indian travelers will remain in effect for two years, noting it “will be reviewed at a later date”.

Blyth, who began visiting Bhutan in 1988, said he doesn’t expect the new fee to negatively affect interest in Bhutan once travelers understand.

“Tourism in Bhutan has been restructured so that travelers no longer have to book through tour operators and travel agencies and can do business directly with providers such as hotels, restaurants, guides and transport companies,” he said. “These services are cheap and… result in a total cost, even with the new tourist tax, which is still reasonable.”



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