The Kingdom of Bhutan is reopening to tourists on Friday with a hefty hike to its day by day tourist 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 day by day package rate of $200-$250 — depending on the time of 12 months. The speed often included hotel, food, transportation and tour guide costs in addition to a compulsory $65 Sustainable Development Fee.
But in late June, Bhutan passed a Tourism Levy Bill that eliminated the minimum day by day package rate in favor of raising the Sustainable Development Fee from $65 to $200 per person per day.
Travel costs — for hotels and food, for instance — should not covered by the fee.
The country is providing a fee discount for families, said Raju Rai, the CEO of Heavenly Bhutan Travels.
“It’s 50% for youngsters between 6-12 years [old] and … free for youngsters 5 years and below,” he said.
Bhutan, and supporters of the brand new policy, say the move is according to the country’s continued goal to draw “high value, low volume” tourism.
To experience the country — which is known for providing travelers a rare glimpse of authenticity in a world replete with tourist traps — visitors must “make an lively contribution to Bhutan’s economic, social and cultural development,” in accordance with the corporate website for the Tourism Council of Bhutan.
The Tourism Council said the fees will go toward upgrading infrastructure, training staff within the travel industry, preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and creating jobs that provide fair wages and dealing conditions.
Bhutan markets itself because the only carbon-negative country on the planet.
Andrew Stranovsky Photography | Moment | Getty Images
Sam Blyth, chair of The Bhutan Canada Foundation and founding father of the Trans Bhutan Trail, said the fees will go directly to assist local communities.
“The cash collected by [the] government will then be directed back into the communities and to support health and education, that are free to all Bhutanese,” he said.
Travelers, too, will profit from the increased fees, in accordance with the Tourism Council. Standards and certifications for hotels and tour operators shall be revised, which is able to improve travelers’ experiences, it said. Plus, travelers can have more flexibility in planning and booking their very own trips, it said.
The Tourism Council notes that the minimum day by day package rate “had its limitations. Tourists, as an example, often needed to select from packaged tours offered by tour operators, which controlled the travel experience for them. By getting rid of [it] … tourists will find a way to interact their desired service providers directly, and pay for his or her services accordingly.”
Tour guides aren’t any longer mandatory for all trips, but they’re required for travelers who plan to trek or transcend the cities of Thimphu and Paro, in accordance with the Council.
Travel agencies, who can get visas for travelers, also collect payment for the sustainability fees, said Sarah-Leigh Shenton, the marketing director on the travel agency Red Savannah. “All administration is handled by our team, and our clients do not need to make payments locally.”
Critics argue Bhutan’s increased tourist tax is “elitist,” by further closing the door to budget travelers who dream of visiting Bhutan.
Still more say the brand new policy will disproportionately affect travel agencies that cater to budget-friendly travelers.
Others are critical of the timing, stating the brand new rules will discourage travelers from visiting at a time when the country’s tourism industry is reeling from a 2.5-year border closure.
Nonetheless, the Tourism Council of Bhutan said the pandemic provided the best time “to reset the sector.” It also hinted it could welcome a slow return of travelers, stating, “The gradual return of tourists will allow for the progressive upgrading of infrastructure and services.”
Sam Blyth said he has hiked extensively through Bhutan for the past 30 years. He’s the founding father of the Trans Bhutan Trail, a not-for-profit company that helped revitalize a 250-mile ancient trail that traverses the middle of the country.
Sam Blyth, Trans Bhutan Trail, visiting Bhutan, trekking Bhutan
Wendy Min, Trip.com’s head of presidency affairs for Australia and Recent Zealand, said she feels a hefty fee is required to “filter out travellers and to maintain things manageable.”
“For a small country, it’s going to not be ideal for them to open completely since you do not need Punakha, or any of those cities, to be the subsequent Kathmandu,” she said. “I totally understand why people can be turned off by the worth tag, but everyone seems to be different and on the hunt for their very own experience and memories.”
She called increased fees “the brand new normal” citing Venice, where Italian officials have indicated day-trippers might want to pay between 3 and 10 euros ($3 and $10) to enter starting January 2023.
For now, the increased fees won’t apply to Indian tourists, who before the pandemic accounted for around 73% of all travelers to Bhutan, in accordance with a report published by Bhutan in 2019.
But that will change too. The Tourism Council of Bhutan said the $15 day by day fee that Indian travelers pay will remain in effect for 2 years, noting it “shall be revised at a later time.”
Blyth, who began visiting Bhutan in 1988, said he doesn’t expect the brand new fee to negatively affect interest in Bhutan once travelers understand it.
“Tourism in Bhutan has been restructured in order that travellers will now not must book through tour operators and travel agents and might deal directly with providers similar to hotels, restaurants, guides and transportation firms,” he said. “These services are inexpensive and … lead to an overall cost, even with the brand new tourism fee, that remains to be reasonable.”