Bhutan has an enviable reputation as the premium version of the Himalayas. Magnificent mountains, a deeply traditional Buddhist culture, air so clean you can smell the glacial meltwater – all available for the price of a daily fee, which is at the heart of Bhutan’s model of high-value, low-impact tourism.
And until recently, it was a price that discerning tourists were happy to pay. For a daily fee of US$200 to US$250 per person before the pandemic, visitors had access to one of the most unspoiled corners of the Himalayas, a pristine Buddhist kingdom considered the closest thing to Shangri-La on earth.
Bhutan is radically changing its tourism model: instead of a daily fee of US$200-250 for an all-inclusive package, tourists will now be charged a daily sustainability fee of US$200, with additional costs for food, accommodation, transport and everything else. which used to be part of the package. Visitors will no longer have to join an organized tour, but traveling to Bhutan has become much more expensive.
How did the old daily fee structure work for Bhutan?
In the pre-pandemic world, visitors to Bhutan paid a daily fee of US$250 per person to stay in the country – enough to make budget travelers in the Himalayas cry! In addition, a daily surcharge of US$30-40 applies to solo travelers and couples, placing Bhutan among the most expensive destinations in the world.
Although there was a cheaper way to get to Bhutan depending on the time of year you visited. Daily rates dropped to $200 from December to February and from June to August, which coincided with periods when the weather was too cold or too overcast to get the best of the Himalayan environment.
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What did tourists get for $250 a day?
In fact, the “$250 per day” headline figure has always been misleading. The daily rate set by the Bhutan Tourism Board was effectively a fixed minimum charge for an impressive all-inclusive package including accommodation, meals, transport, entry to monasteries, shrines and museums, and the services of an expert guide. In the world of all-inclusive tourism, the daily fee for Bhutan was actually a bargain.
By paying this daily fee, visitors could plan an itinerary with a Bhutanese travel agency, combining legendary sights such as the medieval dzongs (fortress monasteries) of Paro, Thimphu and Punakha and Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Takchang, which can be reached via a southern trek along the path north of Paro.
A typical trip included a little bit of monastery visiting, a little bit of hiking, a little bit of mountain gazing, a little bit of archery tournament watching, a little bit of wildlife watching, and a daily dose of stand still (chilli stewed with cheese) and other Bhutanese delicacies – usually served with dried chillies on the side.
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How has the daily fee benefited Bhutan?
At the core of the daily fee model was a sustainable development fee of US$65 per day, which went directly to the Bhutanese government to fund projects ranging from public education to conservation, carbon-neutral infrastructure and organic farming. These measures contributed to Bhutan becoming the first carbon negative country on earth in 2017 – effectively absorbing more carbon dioxide than it produces.
The model has brought dividends to Bhutan’s coffers. In 2019, the last year before the pandemic, Bhutan welcomed 315,599 high-value tourists, contributing US$345.88 million to the national coffers, but leaving a minimal footprint on Bhutan’s culture and environment.
What does sustainable development look like on earth? Well, because tourism has reduced the pressure on agriculture to support the economy, Bhutan has managed to keep 71% of its area under forest cover, compared to only 25% in Nepal and 11% in Bangladesh, and about 95% of Bhutan’s electricity is generated using hydropower.
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Has the daily fee helped ordinary Bhutanese?
In exchange for opening their mountain home to high-value, low-impact tourism, the people of Bhutan have achieved a high standard of living by regional standards. Compared to neighboring Nepal, Bhutan spends almost 40% more on education, has half the unemployment rate, and has half the number of people living below the poverty line. It is impressive that almost 100% of the population has access to electricity and clean water.
Apart from the unspoiled nature and encounters with landscapes and cultures that make mountaineers and anthropologists fall to their knees, Bhutan is also famous for its general national happiness – an innovative model for evaluating the successes and achievements of Bhutan’s part monarchy, part clergy and part elected system of government.
Using indicators such as job satisfaction, sense of community, psychological well-being and religious karma, Bhutan is ranked as the happiest country in the world. Bhutan’s guided tourism model has also protected Bhutan’s Buddhist culture from the worst excesses of mass tourism. Indeed, compassion, spirituality and a clean environment are still valued as highly as material goods.
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What does the new daily fee structure look like for Bhutan when it reopens in September?
There is no doubt that the daily tourism fee model has played a large role in boosting Bhutan’s famous level of national satisfaction. And when Bhutan reopens to non-quarantine tourism on September 23, 2022, the sustainable development fee will increase from US$65 per day to US$200 per day for most visitors, generating even more revenue for Bhutan’s development projects.
The government has already confirmed that the increased development fee will be used to offset tourism’s carbon footprint, improve carbon-neutral infrastructure and upskill workers in Bhutan’s tourism sector, supporting Bhutan’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
So why now? This is what Dr. Thandi Dorjee, Chairman of the Bhutan Tourism Board said: “Covid-19 has allowed us to reboot – to rethink how best to structure and manage the sector so that it not only benefits Bhutan economically, but also socially. while maintaining a low carbon footprint. In the long term, our goal is to create a high-value experience for visitors and good-paying and professional jobs for our citizens.”
However, the daily fee of US$200 will be in addition to accommodation, meals, transportation, sightseeing and guide fees. Where the previous model of Bhutanese tourism was high value and low impact, the new model takes this idea and inspires it – in the future, Bhutan will be reserved for high-budget visitors who are willing to spend big on low-budget benefits. carbon travel and you don’t have to share these wonders with the crowd.
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Are there any changes for travelers from India, Bangladesh and Maldives?
Under the old tourism model, visitors from neighboring India, Bangladesh and the Maldives were exempted from both the sustainability fee and the need to join an organized tour. This generous tourism policy and shared land border have contributed to Indian travelers accounting for 73% of Bhutan’s visitors.
However, during the pandemic, a new daily fee of US$16 was introduced for travelers from countries that were previously exempt. The government noted that this figure is likely to increase in the near future, significantly changing the travel dynamics for travelers from South Asia.
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So, should you go to Bhutan?
Of course! – although with higher daily fees, the experience will be more expensive and exclusive than ever. Bhutan has always been a place where you can save for years, so all that has really changed is the need to save for longer before you arrive. The wonders you will see upon arrival – stunning mountains, beautifully decorated monasteries, deeply traditional Buddhist culture – have not changed at all.
And tourist taxes are the future of travel, with Thailand introducing a US$9 tourist tax in 2022, Venice set to charge a €10 entry fee from 2023, and the EU already has a range of tourist taxes and surcharges. The difference in Bhutan is that you just need deeper pockets.
In exchange for the new higher costs, visitors will be able to experience Bhutan in a much more impulsive way than in the past, freed from the obligation to make all arrangements through a Bhutanese tour operator. The new model could also help bridge the small but noticeable gap between locals and visitors who accompany organized tours.
Our positive view of the future? Thanks to a sustainability levy that funds new projects from increased hydropower to electrification of public transport, this famously clean mountain air could be even cleaner and even more fragrant with the scent of glacial meltwater and blue pines.
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