The Kingdom of Bhutan reopens to tourists on Friday with a big increase in its daily tourist tax.
Before the country closed its borders in March 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, travelers to Bhutan had to pay a minimum daily fee of $200 to $250, depending on the time of year. The fare often included hotel, food, transportation, and tour guide fees as well as a mandatory $65 sustainability fee.
But in late June, Bhutan passed a tourism tax bill that eliminated the minimum daily pass rate in favor of an increase in the sustainability tax from $65 to $200 per person per day. .
Travel costs – for hotels and food, for example – are not covered by the fee.
The country is offering a discount on fees for families, said Raju Rai, CEO of Heavenly Bhutan Travels.
“It’s 50% for children between 6-12 years old [old] and … free for children 5 and under,” he said.
“An active contribution”
Bhutan and supporters of the new policy say the move is in line with the country’s ongoing goal of attracting “high-value, low-volume” tourism.
To experience the country – which is famous for offering travelers a rare glimpse of authenticity in a world filled with tourist traps – visitors must “actively contribute to the economic, social and cultural development of Bhutan”, according to the website of the Tourism Council. from Bhutan.
The Tourism Council said the fees will go towards upgrading infrastructure, training workers in the travel industry, preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and creating jobs offering fair wages and working conditions.
Bhutan presents itself as the only carbon negative country in the world.
Andrew Stranovski Photography | time | Getty Images
Sam Blyth, president of the Bhutan Canada Foundation and founder of the Trans Bhutan Trail, said the fees will go directly to help local communities.
“The money raised by [the] the government will then redirect to the communities and support health and education, which are free for all Bhutanese,” he said.
Will travelers benefit?
Travelers will also benefit from the increased fees, according to the Tourism Council. Standards and certifications for hotels and tour operators will be revised, which will improve the experience of travelers, he added. Additionally, travelers will have more flexibility in planning and booking their own trips, he added.
The Tourism Council notes that the minimum daily pass “had its limits. Tourists, for example, often had to choose from organized tours offered by tour operators, who controlled the travel experience for them. By removing [it] …tourists will be able to engage the desired service providers directly and pay for their services accordingly.”
Tour guides are no longer compulsory for all trips, but they are mandatory for travelers planning to hike or go beyond the cities of Thimphu and Paro, according to the council.
Travel agencies, which can obtain visas for travelers, also collect payment for the sustainability fee, said Sarah-Leigh Shenton, marketing director of travel agency Red Savannah. “All administration is handled by our team, and our customers don’t have to make payments locally.”
Critics versus supporters
Critics say Bhutan’s tourist tax increase is “elitist”, further closing the door to budget travelers who dream of visiting Bhutan.
Still others say the new policy will disproportionately affect travel companies that cater to budget-conscious travellers.
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 reeling from a 2.5-year border closure.
However, the Bhutan Tourism Board said the pandemic offered the right time “to reset the sector”. He also hinted that he could accommodate a slow return of travellers, saying, “The gradual return of tourists will allow for the gradual modernization of infrastructure and services.”
Sam Blyth said he has hiked extensively across Bhutan over the past 30 years. He is the founder of the Trans Bhutan Trail, a nonprofit that has helped revitalize an ancient 250-mile trail that runs through the center of the country.
Sam Blyth, Trans Bhutan Trail, visit Bhutan, trekking in Bhutan
Wendy Min, Trip.com’s government affairs manager for Australia and New Zealand, said she felt the high fees were necessary to “screen travelers and keep things manageable”.
“For a small country, it won’t be ideal for them to fully open up because you don’t want Punakha, or any of those cities, to be the next Kathmandu,” she said. “I totally understand why people would be put off by the price, but everyone is different and looking for their own experience and memories.”
She called the increased fees a “new normal”, citing Venice, where Italian officials said day-trippers will have to pay between 3 and 10 euros ($3 and $10) to enter from January 2023.
For now, the fee increase will not apply to Indian tourists, who before the pandemic accounted for about 73% of all travelers to Bhutan, according to a report published by Bhutan in 2019.
But that can also change. The Bhutan Tourism Board said the $15 daily fee Indian travelers pay will remain in place for two years, noting it “will be reviewed later”.
Blyth, who started visiting Bhutan in 1988, said he doesn’t expect the new fees to negatively affect interest in Bhutan once travelers get the hang of it.
“Tourism in Bhutan has been restructured so that travelers no longer have to book through tour operators and travel agents and can deal directly with providers such as hotels, restaurants, guides and travel companies. transportation,” he said. “These services are inexpensive and… incur an overall cost, even with the new tourist fee, which remains reasonable.”