This tiny country is finally reopening – but it’ll cost you £177 a day

bhutan vacation travel tourist tax

The mysterious mountainous kingdom of Bhutan finally reopened today after 30 months of sealed borders due to lingering fears of Covid. The resumption of international travel follows in the footsteps of other wary countries, such as Japan, leaving China as the last big hurdle left; even Hong Kong announced today that it would end the hotel quarantine next week.

Travelers arriving in the tiny landlocked country, beloved for its soaring peaks, fortress-monastery and a lifestyle that has hardly changed in centuries, won’t have to take a Covid test or show proof of vaccination. However, there is a drawback. Tourists now face a daily charge of $200 (£177) per person simply for visiting. To soften the blow a bit for families, there’s a 50 percent discount for children between the ages of six and 12, with those under five exempt from the fee.

The so-called Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) will replace a current tax of $65 per day and will not include accommodation, guide or even a drink on arrival. It is worth dwelling on the full scope of the additional expense. Tourists staying just eight days in the country, for example, will be charged $1,600 (£1,420) per person on top of the cost of their vacation. That’s an extra $6,400 (£5,682) for a family of four with teenage children. Only the rich need apply.

It should be noted that Bhutan has long pursued a certain type of visitor. Since opening to tourists in 1974, it has used a ‘High Value, Low Volume’ model, making it a pioneer in a concept that many countries are eager to emulate in the age of over-tourism. Its original, considerably lower visitor’s tax was incorporated into this policy, as was the requirement to book a government-approved tour package. One bonus is that this stipulation has now been removed, meaning visitors can now book flights, hotels, and tours individually.

bhutan travel tourist tax advice reopening holidays for the rich

bhutan travel tourist tax advice reopening holidays for the rich

Defending the 300 per cent tourism tax increase, Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering said: “The intent and spirit of the ‘High Value, Low Volume’ model has been watered down over the years, without our realizing it. bill. So, as we reboot as a nation after this pandemic and officially open our doors to visitors, we are reminded of the essence of politics, values ​​and merit that have defined us for generations.”

He went on to state that “high value” did not simply translate to welcoming the one percent and that there would be no cap on the number of visitors, a policy recently adopted by countries such as Japan.

He said: “Usually ‘high value’ is understood as exclusive high-end products and extravagant recreational facilities. But that is not Bhutan. And, ‘low volume’ does not mean limiting the number of visitors. We will thank all those who visit us who treasure our values, at the same time that we learn so much from them. If that is what you are looking for, there is no limit or restriction.”

Skeptics might see the recent opening of five luxury accommodations by high-end hotel brand Six Senses as evidence that super-rich travelers are encouraged and expected.

The policy change could be a simple reaction to the increase in visitors in recent years. Although still relatively modest, the numbers had increased significantly before the pandemic. In 2019, 315,600 traveled to the country, 15.1% more than the previous year. A decade earlier, this figure was just 23,000.

How will the fee be used?

Tourists who pay the fee may wonder how it will be used, and the government has stated that it will fund “national investments in programs that preserve Bhutan’s cultural traditions, sustainability projects, infrastructure improvements and opportunities for young people, as well as providing health care.” free and education for all.”

He has highlighted projects such as offsetting the carbon footprint of visitors by planting trees, training workers in the tourism sector, cleaning and maintaining trails, reducing the country’s dependence on fossil fuels, and electrifying Bhutan’s transport sector, among others. efforts.

“We need tourism to not only benefit Bhutan economically, but also socially, keeping our footprint low and sustainable,” said Dorji Dhradhul, Director General of the Bhutan Tourism Council.

These ambitious projects may well enhance the tourism experience on the ground and preserve Bhutan as one of the ultimate bucket list destinations. The country has certainly managed to avoid the dangers of globalization and mass tourism thus far, winning devotees for its treks, temples, and generally untouched wilderness. The debate, of course, is whether this kind of utopia should be exclusive to the rich or if there are other ways to make tourism sustainable.

Could the accusation backfire?

There is also the very real threat that the fee could backfire and discourage longer and more meaningful travel to the country. Gordon Steer, UK manager of adventure specialists World Expeditions, has pointed out that the tax penalizes those who stay longer in the country on extensive trekking trips, while potentially encouraging fast treks that are more harmful to the environment. environment.

“One of our most challenging yet popular treks is the 27-day Bhutan Snowman trek,” he said. “It is among the best in the Himalayas but, with the price increase, customers will pay almost £9,000, instead of the current cost of £5,890.

“Increasing the price of a trek by 50 percent will have a huge impact on the future of Bhutan’s tourism industry and, after more than two years of Covid, would leave us very concerned about the potential impact to Bhutan’s livelihoods. our colleagues inside Bhutan. .”

Steer questioned the blunt nature of the tax, which doesn’t consider different types of travel and their impact.

He said: “Our trekkers to Bhutan are often in the country for three to four weeks. They also buy handicrafts, eat at local restaurants, and take additional day trips that provide other base benefits.

“We have asked the Bhutanese government to consider a phased increase for those spending more than a week in the country, as clearly the sheer weight of the proposed increase will be a huge barrier. Our type of tourism is low impact, creates jobs and contributes to local remote communities. We would find it very worrying if these new fees prevented people from traveling to the country.”

For now, Bhutan is going ahead with its new tariff. And any change in policy would come as a surprise given that 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 is no doubt that other key tourist destinations will be watching with keen interest how the tax increase plays out.

Would the $200 daily charge deter you from visiting Bhutan? Please tell us in the comments below

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