Bhutan Will Triple Fees to Visit

Bhutan Will Triple Fees to Visit

The small Buddhist country of Bhutan on the eastern edge of the Himalayas, often referred to as the “last Shangri-La” for its rich natural beauty, sustainable development and rich cultural heritage, has long resisted the rapid economic returns of mass tourism. good for protection. This approach is consistent with a cultural idea of ​​measuring a nation’s wealth and prosperity through the National Happiness Index as a proxy for gross domestic product.

Since foreigners were first allowed to visit Bhutan in 1974, the country has developed a unique “high value, low volume” tourism policy that requires international visitors to pay a minimum of $250 per day for accommodation, meals, a mandatory guided tour, and includes Pay the government a “sustainability fee” of $65. The package-like approach aims to preserve the country’s natural resources by limiting the number of international tourists and controlling where they go. While some tourists complained about poor plumbing in hotels, slow internet access and bland food, many appreciated the ease of booking a tour.

Now, as the Bhutanese government prepares to reopen its borders on September 23, it has overhauled the tourism system and will significantly increase the cost of tours. Tourists no longer have to travel in groups, but they must now pay the government $200 a day directly and pay separately for their lodging, meals, tours and other travel expenses. Officials said the new policy would reposition Bhutan as an “exclusive destination” to attract “discerning tourists” who would have access to a wider range of premium services.

“Covid-19 has allowed us to reset and rethink how best to structure and operate the sector so that it benefits not only economically but socially, while maintaining a low carbon footprint,” Dr Tandi Dorji, Bhutan Said Bhutan’s Foreign Minister and Chairman of the Tourism Council. “Longer term, our goal is to create high-value experiences for tourists and high-paying and professional jobs for our citizens.”

But many tour operators expressed anxiety about the change. They are concerned that the new structure will cost them any business – not sure if they will be able to attract a sufficient number of tourists at a higher cost, or if tourists will need their services, now they have the option to book directly through hotels, tour guides etc.

“Just two and a half years after we went out of business, when we thought we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, the government’s travel amendment bill has put us back in the dark, and we don’t know what to do with it,” the traveler, who specializes in adventure travel experiences Pelden Dorji, chief executive of the company’s Bhutan Travel Club, said.

Mr Dorji has already received cancellations from groups that had booked but not paid for the packed trips they had scheduled later in the year. He said the panelists did not believe they could justify the additional $200 per day payment, in addition to other fees agreed in the previous package.

Under the previous policy, all bookings and payments had to be made through registered local tour operators who had to organise a scheduled itinerary with fixed dates and overnight stops.

London-based makeup artist Megan Petersen, 44, who visited Bhutan in 2017, said: “It’s basically a tour that lets you see a real, untouched corner of paradise, At the same time protect yourself from tourists.” This is genius and the problem of overtourism in places should use the same model. “

Ms Peterson and her sister spent eight days exploring Bhutan, trekking through forests and alpine meadows, trekking to cliffside temples and meeting local communities in remote villages. Throughout the trip, they camped and stayed in basic three-star accommodation. Everything is included in their package.

“The hotels and the food are mediocre, but it just adds to the experience of experiencing the real community and culture without the fake tourist treatment,” Ms Peterson said. “What makes Bhutan so special is the kindness and spirit of its people, and their love and respect for nature and the land.”

Administration officials said the previous policy discouraged additional out-of-pocket costs because many travel agencies combined their travel activities, food and other products for no more than $250 a day — effectively reducing the policy’s minimum The fee becomes the maximum fee.

“The policy has caused more misunderstandings than understanding and has resulted in a reduction in the services we could possibly provide,” said Prime Minister Lothai Zelling.

Under the revised tourism bill passed by the Bhutanese Parliament last month, Bhutan will be able to reinvest in “improving the quality of tourism products, especially in training our tour guides, improving the quality of our hotels, restaurants and food”, while Protect the pristine environment we have for future generations,” the Prime Minister said.

Dr Tshering said one of the government’s main priorities is to invest in waste management infrastructure to protect Bhutan’s biological corridors, natural parks and key cultural assets. Bhutan’s constitution states that 60 percent of the country’s land must be covered by forests, and strict laws are in place to protect and maintain its carbon-negative status.

“It all costs money,” Dr. Tshering said.

While Bhutan’s tourism representatives had expected some reforms to the country’s tourism policy, the tripling of the government’s sustainable development tax was alarming, and many feared that the new model would divert tourists at a time when the country desperately needs tourism. cheaper destination dollar to boost its post-pandemic recovery.

Tourism revenue is a major contributor to Bhutan’s economy, accounting for 6% of the country’s GDP. About 29,000 tourists visited Bhutan in 2020, generating $19 million in revenue, before the border was closed in March of that year. According to the Bhutan Tourism Board, 315,599 tourists visited in 2019, bringing in USD 225 million to the tourism industry. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia eased travel restrictions, allowing foreign tourists on a case-by-case basis and requiring them to quarantine.

Tour operators believe that the minimum package framework incentivizes tourists by including all essential services.

“Everyone is asking, ‘Why fix something that isn’t broken?'” said Lotay Rinchen, co-founder of travel company Bridge To Bhutan, Bespoke Mindful Journeys. It “protects tourism and ensures a certain level of quality and business,” he said of the previous system.

Mr Rinchen has been in favour of raising the price of the minimum fee. But without the packaging structure requirement, he said he expected the Bhutanese brand to be harder to sell. He has begun to explore the possibility of offering luxury products to attract tourists willing to pay more, such as chic boutique hotels, health resorts and high-end luxury tents. Visitors used to be able to pay extra for high-end hotels like Taj Tashi and Le Meridien Thimphu, but many opted for the basic options included in the lowest daily fee packages.

“This is not the right time. Bhutan’s economy is not in good shape and we were expecting to open up tourism and start earning hard currency again, but this price hike will put tourists off,” said Mr Dorji of the Bhutan Tourism Club, adding Said that the new model may appeal to the demographics of older sightseeing tourists who “slip from one luxury hotel to another without experiencing the Bhutanese way of life”.

The prime minister said this was not the government’s intention. “We want to make sure we attract a group of tourists who are smart, knowledgeable and understand our needs and unique characteristics,” he said.

American personal trainer Elsa Foster, 44, was on a mountain bike tour in Bhutan with a group of friends in 2018. After a day of sightseeing in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, they embarked on a seven-day off-road adventure, cycling through remote valleys and villages. Ms Foster said it was practical to have their travel agent book hotels because they were staying in a different place each night.

“I really like how the old toll system organized and packaged everything, all you had to do was show up,” she said. “But to pay $200 on top of everything else, you have to be very wealthy, and unfortunately Bhutan is going to be inaccessible to young people who can’t afford it.”

The government hopes the new policy will have the opposite effect, attracting a wider population. “What we mean is that we welcome all individuals and potential visitors with a very open mind who want to visit and experience the uniqueness we have to offer,” Dr Tshering said. “Then we will make sure that tourists will get value for the money spent in Bhutan.”

Before the pandemic, the United States was one of the country’s largest tourism markets, after India and Bangladesh, with 13,016 Americans visiting in 2019, staying an average of 10 nights, according to the Bhutan Tourism Board.

Environmental protection and ecotourism expert Karma Tshering said the government should use the increased tourism tax to meet its sustainability goals, which could include investing in hiking trails, motorway facilities and training and support for service providers.

He worries that without a minimum spend policy, “which helps our service providers earn a minimum income to support their services, our staff will be left in the hands of tourists to negotiate and lower prices,” Mr Tshering said, adding Said it could have “a knock-on impact on the delivery of quality service and a premium experience”.

Some industries see opportunity in the change. Sonam Wangchuck, chairman of the Bhutan Hotels and Restaurants Association, said the amendment is long overdue and will bring about positive changes and equal opportunities for all hotels and restaurants.

“I think it’s survival of the fittest now, and now it’s time to pull up your socks and be a go-getter,” he said. “Gone is the business of knocking on doors in the past, so the harder we try, the more promising it is.”

Chencho Dema contributed reporting from Kansas City, Missouri.

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