The Kingdom of Bhutan, a small Buddhist country in the Himalayas between China and India, has been closed to tourists since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, however, the country’s government has announced it will reopen its borders on September 23.
Bhutan is often called “the last Shangri-La” due to its natural beauty, rich cultural heritage, and sustainable development. If visiting this paradise is on your travel list, you’ll need to pay attention to new tourism fees.
When the country reopens, tourists will need to pay the daily Sustainable Development Fee of $200 directly to the government — on top of accommodation, meals, tours, and other travel expenses.
To be fair, Bhutan has never been a destination for those on a penny-pinching budget. Bhutan opened to foreigners in 1974, following what the Tourism Council of Bhutan calls a policy of “High Value, Low Volume,” which creates “an image of exclusivity and high-yield.”
Until now, tourists paid a “minimum daily package rate” of $250 that covered accommodations, meals, a mandatory tour guide, and included a $65 Sustainable Development Fee. That structure has been replaced with the new policy.
“COVID-19 has allowed us to reset — to rethink how the sector can be best structured and operated, so that it not only benefits Bhutan economically, but socially as well, while keeping carbon footprints low,” Dr. Tandi Dorji, foreign minister of Bhutan and chairperson of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, said in a statement. “In the long run, our goal is to create high-value experiences for visitors, and well-paying and professional jobs for our citizens.”
A Real-Life Shangri-La
Bhutan’s “High Value, Low Volume” tourism model supports the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s vision, which is “to promote Bhutan as an exclusive travel destination based on Gross National Happiness Values,” rather than gross domestic product, according to the Tourism Council of Bhutan.
Interestingly, when Bhutan opened to tourists in 1974, it received 300 visitors. In contrast, in 2019, before the pandemic, 315,599 tourists visited Bhutan. This allowed the country’s tourism industry to make $225 million, according to the Tourism Council of Bhutan.
A Policy That Looks To The Future
Upon learning about the new tourism fee, the question that immediately comes to mind is “Why now?”
There are several parts to the answer.
Reducing The Carbon Footprint
“Amid the intensifying threat of climate change, Bhutan will also be stepping up its efforts to keep the country carbon-negative and a green destination for tourists,” the Tourism Council of Bhutan explains. “The nation is keenly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as frequent rain and floods.”
Towards that goal, the daily Sustainable Development Fee is being raised from $65 to $200 to fund activities that promote carbon-neutral tourism and build a more sustainable tourism sector. This includes offsetting the carbon footprint of tourists.
Revamping The Tourism Industry
Secondly, revamping the country’s tourism industry is geared around building a competitive tourism sector that is professional and also creates highly-skilled and well-paying jobs for Bhutanese, while also elevating the travel experience of tourists. That entails creating new standards for service providers such as hotels, guides, tour operators, and drivers. Where necessary, employees will be required to complete a robust certification process.
Improving Tour Operations
Finally, the minimum daily package rate — paid by all tourists in the past for an all-inclusive package tour in Bhutan — restricted tourists’ choices because they could only choose from packaged tours provided by tour operators. Instead, under the new policy, tourists will be able to engage service providers directly and pay for their services accordingly. This is expected to create more flexibility and elevate tourists’ experience, according to the Tourism Council of Bhutan.
“Our strategy for the revamp of the tourism sector brings us back to our roots, of ‘High Value, Low Volume’ tourism, where we meet the needs of tourists while protecting our people, culture, values, and environment,” Dorji Dhradhul, director general of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, said in a statement. “Tourism is a strategic and valuable national asset, one that does not only impact those working in the sector, but all Bhutanese. Ensuring its sustainability is vital to safeguarding future generations.”
While you’re thinking about the Kingdom of Bhutan, be sure to read our coverage of its neighbors China and India: