The mysterious mountain kingdom of Bhutan finally reopened today after 30 months of sealed borders due to lingering Covid fears. The resumption of international travel follows in the footsteps of fellow cautious countries, such as Japan, leaving China as the last remaining major holdout – even Hong Kong announced today it would end hotel quarantine next week.
Travellers arriving in the little, landlocked country, loved for its lofty peaks, fortress monasteries and a lifestyle almost unchanged in centuries, won’t be required to take a Covid test or even show proof of vaccination. However, there is snag. Tourists now face a $200 (£177) per person daily charge simply for visiting. Softening the blow slightly for families, there’s a 50 per cent discount for children aged between six and 12, with those under five exempt from the fee.
The so-called Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) will replace an existing $65 per day tax and won’t include any accommodation, guiding, or even a drink on arrival. It’s worth lingering on the full extent of the added expense. Tourists staying for just eight days in the country, for example, will be charged $1,600 (£1,420) per person on top of their holiday cost. That’s an extra $6,400 (£5,682) for a family of four with teenage children. Only the wealthy need apply.
It should be noted that Bhutan has long pursued a certain type of visitor. Since it opened to tourists back in 1974, it has used a ‘High Value, Low Volume’ model, making it something of a pioneer in a concept many countries are eager to emulate in the age of overtourism. Its original – considerably lower – visitor tax fed into this policy, as did the requirement to book a government-approved package tour. One plus is that this stipulation has now been removed, meaning visitors are now free to book flights, hotels and tours individually.
Defending the 300 per cent tourism tax increase, Prime Minister Dr Lotay Tshering said: “The ‘High Value, Low Volume’ model’s intent and spirit were watered down over the years, without us even realising it. Therefore, as we reset as a nation after this pandemic, and officially open our doors to visitors, we are reminding ourselves about the essence of the policy, the values and merits that have defined us for generations.”
He went on to claim that “high value” did not translate to simply welcoming the one per cent and that there would not be a cap on visitor numbers – a policy embraced by the likes of Japan recently.
He said: “Typically, ‘high value’ is understood as exclusive high-end products and extravagant recreational facilities. But that is not Bhutan. And, ‘low volume’ doesn’t mean limiting the number of visitors. We will appreciate everyone who visits us to treasure our values, while we also learn as much from them. If that is what you are searching for, there is no limit or restriction.”
Sceptics might look at the recent opening of five luxury lodges from high-end hotel brand Six Senses as evidence that super-wealthy travellers are both encouraged and expected.
The policy change could be a simple reaction to the spike in visitors in recent years. Though still relatively modest, numbers had increased significantly pre-pandemic. In 2019, 315,600 travelled to the country, up 15.1 per cent from the previous year. A decade earlier this figure was just 23,000.
How will the fee be used?
Tourists shelling out for the fee may wonder how it will be used, and the government has stated it will fund “national investment in programmes that preserve Bhutan’s cultural traditions, sustainability projects, infrastructure upgrades and opportunities for youth – as well as providing free healthcare and education for all.”
It has highlighted projects such as offsetting the carbon footprint of visitors by planting trees, upskilling workers in the tourism sector, cleaning and maintaining trails, reducing the country’s reliance on fossil fuels and electrifying Bhutan’s transportation sector, among other endeavours.
“We need tourism to not only benefit Bhutan economically, but socially as well, while maintaining our low, sustainable footprint,” said Dorji Dhradhul, Director General of the Tourism Council of Bhutan.
These ambitious projects may well enhance the tourist experience on the ground and preserve Bhutan as one of the ultimate bucket-list destinations. The country has certainly managed to avoid the perils of globalisation and mass tourism thus far, winning devotees for its trekking, temples and generally unspoilt nature. The debate, of course, is whether this utopia of sorts should be the preserve of the rich or if there are other ways to conduct sustainable tourism.
Could the charge backfire?
There is also the very real threat that the fee could backfire and discourage longer, more meaningful trips to the country. Gordon Steer, UK manager of adventure specialists World Expeditions, has pointed out that the tax punishes those staying longer in the country on extensive trekking trips, while potentially encouraging whistle-stop tours that are more environmentally damaging.
“One of our most challenging but popular treks is the 27-day Bhutan Snowman Trek,” he said. “It ranks amongst the very finest anywhere in the Himalayas but, with the price rise, clients will be paying almost £9,000, rather than the current cost of £5,890.
“Increasing the price of a trek by 50 per cent will have a huge impact on the future of Bhutan’s tourism industry and, after two-plus years of Covid, would leave us very worried about the potential impact for the livelihoods of our colleagues within Bhutan.”
Mr Steer questioned the blunt nature of the tax, which doesn’t consider different types of trips and their impact.
He said: “Our trekkers to Bhutan are often in the country for between three to four weeks. They also buy handicrafts, eat at local restaurants and undertake additional day tours providing other grass-roots benefits.
“We have asked the Bhutanese government to consider a scaled increase for those spending longer than a week in the country as clearly the full weight of the proposed increase will be a huge barrier. Our type of tourism is low impact, provides jobs and contributes to the local remote communities. We would find it very worrying indeed if these new fees stopped people travelling to the country.”
For now Bhutan is ploughing ahead with its new fee. And any change in policy would be a surprise given this is a country that has always marched to the beat of its own drum – measuring its success in ‘Gross National Happiness’ rather than an economic metric for example. Still, there’s no doubt other key tourist destinations will be watching with keen interest to see how the tax hike plays out.