BHutan, a small Buddhist kingdom nestled in the Himalayan mountains between India and China, is known for its cliff-cling monasteries, lush jungles, peaceful people and cautious approach to tourism.
Foreigners have only been allowed to visit Bhutan since 1974, and never have visitors been able to freely explore the country. Everyone traveling to Bhutan had to obtain a $40 visa, book through a licensed tour operator, and pay a minimum daily rate of $250, which covered a $65 government fee for sustainable development, as well as the basic accommodation, meals, and a guide. (Visitors could upgrade to more luxurious accommodation and food at an additional cost.) The regulations were intended to adhere to a policy of “Big value, low volume” tourism, essentially intended to limit the total number of tourists and to ensure that those who go there receive a quality experience and (ideally) that visitors are respectful and responsible travelers.
The old minimum daily rate will no longer be in place when Bhutan fully reopens to tourism on September 23, after being closed to foreign visitors since March 2020. Instead, visitors will have to pay $200 a day directly to the government. They will also have the choice not to travel with an organized tour but rather to book directly with hotels and activity operators and travel more independently. The objective of the new approach, according to the Bhutan Tourism Boardis to make the country a “high-end tourist destination”.
“COVID-19 has allowed us to reset – to rethink the best way to structure and operate the sector, so that it not only benefits Bhutan economically, but also socially, while maintaining a footprint low carbon,” said Dr. Tandi Dorji, Bhutan’s foreign affairs official. minister and chairman of the Bhutan Tourism Board, said in a press release. “Long-term, our goal is to create high-value experiences for visitors and well-paying, professional jobs for our citizens.
According to the government, the fee increase will be used to provide stronger training programs for workers in the tourism sector to ensure better service and offset the carbon footprint of tourists, although what this looks like has yet to be announced.
Bhutan has a long tradition of protecting its environment—its constitution even demands that 60% of the country’s landmass remain protected forests. For this reason, Bhutan is currently the only carbon negative country in the world. Yet the government has said that due to the intensifying threat of climate change (the country is vulnerable to frequent flooding, among other threats), Bhutan will redouble its efforts to keep the country carbon negative.
The Bhutan government also said removing the minimum daily fare would help remove limitations on what travelers could experience. Previously, travelers could only choose organized tours developed by tour operators, whereas now tourists will have the possibility flexibility to design their own itineraries with their preferred accommodations and service providers. Of course, they can also book an organized trip if they wish.
Even with previous lower rates, Bhutan was a little-visited country. In 2019, approximately 316,000 tourists visited Bhutan. Of these, only about 72,199 people were from a country other than India, Bangladesh and the Maldives (countries which were not previously required to pay the minimum daily rate but which will pay a lower tourist tax in the future, although the exact sum for travelers from these countries has not yet been announced). But, as with most countries, tourism is an important economic contributor.
“Tourism is a strategic and valuable national asset, impacting not just those working in the sector but all Bhutanese,” said Dorji Dhradhul, chief executive of Bhutan Tourism Board.. “Ensuring its sustainability is vital to safeguarding future generations.”
>>Next: In Bhutan, well-being awaits you, even if you‘re bad at yoga