For many years, Bhutan has flown under the radar as a tourist destination — and the kingdom likes to keep it that way.
Since opening to foreign travellers in 1974, Bhutan has favoured conservation over tourism, taking a “high value, low volume” approach.
Visitors were made to take a package-like approach to travel, paying a daily rate of at least $250 to cover accommodation, food and a mandatory tour guide, as well as a $65 “sustainable development fee”, which went to the government.
The approach helped the kingdom to easily control both visitor numbers and where they could go in the country, helping to minimise their impact on its natural surroundings.
However, as of September 23, when the country reopens its borders, things are set to change. Tourists will no longer be required to pre-book package tours, meaning accommodation, individual tours and meals will be paid for separately. Additionally, the current $65 daily charge will more than triple to $200 a day.
According to UK travel experts, the change is set to seriously impact visitor numbers to the kingdom. However, the new policy will cement Bhutan as an “exclusive” destination and allow a “renewed focus” on sustainability.
“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,” said Dr Tandi Dorji, foreign minister of Bhutan and chairman of the Tourism Council of Bhutan. “In the long run, our goal is to create high-value experiences for visitors, and well-paying and professional jobs for our citizens.”
However, several tourism companies operating in Bhutan have expressed concern about what the rising costs will mean for visitor numbers.
“One of our most challenging but popular treks in Bhutan is the 27-day Bhutan Snowman Trek. It ranks among the very finest anywhere in the Himalaya but, if the price rise goes ahead, clients will be paying almost £9,000 ($10,700), rather than the current cost of £5,890 ($7,000),” said Gordon Steer, UK manager for World Expeditions.
“Increasing the price of a trek by 50 per cent will have huge impact on the future of Bhutan’s tourism industry and, after two years of Covid-19, would leave us very worried about the potential impact for the livelihoods of our colleagues within Bhutan.”
However, officials say the new approach is designed to safeguard the kingdom for generations to come. “Tourism is a strategic and valuable national asset, one that does not only impact those working in the sector but all Bhutanese,” said Dorji Dhradhul, director general, Tourism Council of Bhutan. “Ensuring its sustainability is vital to safeguarding future generations.”