Bhutan to welcome tourists back, but will charge daily sustainability fee

Bhutan will reopen for international tourists in September for the first time since the pandemic began, as the tiny Himalayan kingdom looks to revive its economy. But with a responsibility to its people to ensure tourism remains sustainable.

Bhutan is certainly an intriguing place to visit. It has always had a higher cost than some other countries, but this has helped maintain its position as a ‘special place’. Due to its costs per day it has not had the impact of low cost backpacker travel and across the board, no mass tourism with large groups. It has now changed its approach to compulsory charges, which will maintain this direction. We have organised some groups to Bhutan in the past as well as individual travellers and families. We have the contacts to organise all types of programmes in Bhutan.

Wedged between China and India, the country with scenic natural beauty and ancient Buddhist culture, took drastic early steps and banned tourism, a major source of income, in March 2020 when the first COVID-19 case was detected there. The constitutional monarchy of fewer than 800,000 people has reported fewer than 60,000 infections and only 21 deaths, but the $3 billion economy contracted in the last two fiscal years, pushed more people into poverty.

The Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) said tourists would be allowed to enter from 23 September 2022. They will, however, be charged a Sustainable Development Fee of US$200 (AUD$291) per tourist per night, up from the US$65 (AUD$95) charged for three decades.

Officials said the new fee would offset tourists’ carbon impact. “COVID-19 has allowed us to reset – to rethink how the sector can be best structured and operated… while keeping carbon footprints low,” Tandi Dorji, TCB chairman and the country’s foreign minister, said in a statement.

Authorities said Bhutan had revised standards for service providers, such as hotels, guides, tour operators, and drivers. Tourism employs 50,000 people and contributed an annual average of about US$84 million in the three years before the pandemic in direct foreign exchange. Bhutan opened to high-end tourists in 1974 when it received 300 visitors. The number soared to 315,600 in 2019, up 15.1% from a year earlier, TCB data showed. Tour operators said visitors would be free to choose their own operators and plan itineraries, whereas before they could choose only from the packages offered by their operators.

Sangay Phuntso, who runs the Always Bhutan Travel company in the capital Thimphu, said the fees may deter some, but not the wealthier visitors. “Those who can spend are welcome,” Phuntso said. “We are excited.”

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