The Kingdom of Bhutan reopened its doors to tourists on Friday with a significant increase in the daily tourism tax.
Before the country closed its borders in March 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, travelers to Bhutan were required to pay a minimum daily package of between $200 and $250 – depending on the time of year. The price often includes costs for hotels, food, transportation, and a tour guide as well as a mandatory $65 sustainable development fee.
But in late June, Bhutan passed a tourism tax law that eliminated the minimum daily package rate in favor of increasing the sustainable development fee from $65 to $200 per person per day.
Travel costs – for hotels and food, for example – are not covered by the fee.
Raju Rai, CEO of Heavenly Bhutan Travels, said the state is offering a fee discount to families.
50% for children between 6-12 years [old] And .. free of charge for children aged 5 years and under.
Bhutan, and proponents of the new policy, say the move is in line with the country’s continued goal of attracting “high-value, low-volume” tourism.
To experience the country — famous for providing travelers with a rare glimpse of authenticity in a world full of tourist traps — visitors must “make an effective contribution to Bhutan’s economic, social and cultural development,” according to the company’s website for the Bhutan Tourism Board.
The tourism board said the fees will be allocated to developing infrastructure, training workers in the travel industry, preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and creating job opportunities that provide fair wages and working conditions.
Bhutan markets itself as the world’s only carbon-negative country.
Andrew Stranovsky Photography | moment | Getty Images
Sam Blyth, president of the Canada Bhutan Foundation and founder of Trans Bhutan Road, said the fees would go directly to helping local communities.
The money he collects [the] Then the government will be directed back to the local communities and support health and education, which are free for all Bhutanese.”
Will travelers benefit?
Travelers will also benefit from the increased fee, according to the Tourist Board. He said standards and certifications for hotels and tour operators will be reviewed, which will improve travelers’ experience. In addition, travelers will have greater flexibility in planning and booking their trips.
The Tourist Board notes that the minimum daily rate “has its limitations. Tourists, for example, often have to choose from bundled tours offered by tour operators, which control the travel experience for them. [it] …Tourists will be able to communicate with the required service providers directly, and pay for their services accordingly.”
Tour guides are no longer mandatory for all trips, but are required for travelers planning to take a trip or bypass the cities of Thimphu and Paro, according to the council.
Travel agencies, which can obtain visas for travelers, also collect sustainability fee payments, said Sarah Lee Shenton, marketing director for travel agency Red Savannah. “All departments are handled by our team, and our customers will not have to make payments locally.”
Critics vs. Supporters
Critics argue that the increased taxes on tourism in Bhutan are “elitist”, by closing the door further to budget travelers who dream of visiting Bhutan.
More continues to say that the new policy will disproportionately affect travel agencies that cater to budget 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 grappling with a 2.5-year border closure.
However, the Bhutan Tourism Board said the pandemic provided the time to “reset the sector”. It also hinted that it might welcome a slow return of travelers, saying that “the gradual return of tourists will allow for the gradual modernization of infrastructure and services.”
Sam Blyth said he has wandered extensively across Bhutan for the past 30 years. He is the founder of Trans Bhutan Trail, a not-for-profit company that helped revitalize an ancient 250-mile trail that runs through the center of the country.
Sam Blyth, Trans Bhutan Trail, Visit Bhutan, Bhutan Trek
Wendy Maine, Trip.com’s head of government affairs for Australia and New Zealand, said she feels the need to pay exorbitant fees to “clear travelers and keep things in check”.
“For a small country, it wouldn’t be ideal for them to open up completely because you don’t want to be the next Punakha, or any of these cities, Kathmandu,” she said. “I totally understand why people are disapproved of the price, but everyone is different and looking for their experience and memories.”
The fee increase was described as the “new normal”, citing Venice, with Italian officials noting that daily hikers will need to pay between 3 and 10 euros ($3 and $10) to enter from January 2023.
For now, the increased fees will not apply to Indian tourists, who before the pandemic made up about 73% of all travelers to Bhutan, according to a report published by Bhutan in 2019.
But this may also change. The Bhutan Tourism Board said the $15 daily fee paid by Indian travelers will remain in effect for two years, noting that it “will be reviewed at a later time”.
Blythe, who began visiting Bhutan in 1988, said he did not expect the new fees to negatively affect interest in Bhutan once travelers understood them.
“Tourism in Bhutan has been restructured so that travelers do not have to book through tour operators and travel agents and can deal directly with providers such as hotels, restaurants, guides and carriers,” he said. “These services are inexpensive and … result in a total cost, even with the new tourism fee, which is still reasonable.”