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Bhutan's high Sustainable Development Fee affects future travel

bhutan-lunch-kurjelhakahang-bumthang-840x546 Kurje Lhakang Bumthang lunchtime

Earlier this month, Bhutan tripled its Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) from $ 65 USD to $ 200 per person per night. This means a 10 night trip to Bhutan will cost a couple $ 4,000 in donations BEFORE they pay for any tour expenses (air to reach Paro, accommodation, meals, guides, transportation, newly created entrance tariffs to monuments, and the visa fee). Travelers from India, Sikkim, Bangladesh and the Maldives will no longer enjoy past visa free and low SDF access as the new ACT imposes levies on them (albeit not as high as other International guests). These and other travel restrictions in Bhutan are likely to alter the future of tourism there. 

bhutan Taktsang Tiger's nest

The regulations came into effect on July 22, 2022 despite opposition from local and global tourism stakeholders who fear the hefty fees will result in a catastrophic collapse of tourism. If only a handful of high-end visitors meet the price point, the outcome would counter the desired increase in socio-environmental impact. Additional complications with administration compound booking stresses.

Memories of past Bhutan travel

Roughly the size of Switzerland, the nation is fondly referred to by the Bhutanese as Druk Yul – land of the Thunder Dragon. My first visit to Bhutan was in 1999. How exciting it was to journey to this mountain Kingdom nestled in the Himalayas between India and Tibet. Travel was not so easy back then as road conditions hampered long distances. That 8 day visit included areas in Western Bhutan, namely Paro, Thimpu, Punakha with a short time in Trongsa and Bumthang. There are still entry requirements for Bhutan that include pre-payment of the SDF, organizing an itinerary through approved travel providers, using one of the two National air carriers for the flight into Bhutan, and obtaining a visa. 

bhutan mask dancers

Bhutan travel highlights

First stop on most itineraries is the Paro Valley where the countries only International airport is located. From our hotel we watched a lone plane land, and later take off in the early morning when the lift was ideal for flight. I enjoyed watching the aircraft between the green hills and towards the higher mountains that were visible when the clouds parted. There are so many highlights in Paro including the watch tower/museum, and the Paro Dzong.  My best best memories were of a visit to the Paro festival where crowds gathered to watch masked dancers, socialize with family and friends, and wander through the outdoor market set up in the festival courtyard. There are no shortage of festivals and cultural activities. The sound of drums, long horns and short horns emanate from the temples, so many of which visitors are permitted inside while the rituals were occurring. Monks, nuns, and religious Bhutanese keep butter lamps lit, the prayer wheels spinning, and the celebratory dances alive. 

I have been back to Bhutan with groups three more times in the 2 decades that followed the initial visit. In 2016 I ventured on a day trip to the most Western district – Ha, which was restricted for tourists at the time of my first visit. This area borders India and Tibet. To reach Ha, we crossed the highest pass, Chelala, at 3700m, and enjoyed a farm-house lunch.

I am fond of visiting the capital district Thimpu. The scenic journey from Paro can be done in just two hours. The road crosses the Dochula Pass where prayer flags and 108 stupas mark the 3111 meter boundary between the adjoining districts. Thimpu has grown drastically since my first visit. It is the largest city with over 115,000 residents. New hotels, cafés and souvenir shops extend a great distance. Still so many of the industries are cottage scale. Weaving centres show off the intricacies of hand-made kiras. Some of these traditional skirts will take 10 months to finish. The price tag reflects the workmanship at $ 2500 USD per piece. 

bhutan teachers day phobjikha

It is hard to imagine a more spectacular setting for the winter palace and Dzhong of Punakha. At the confluence of two rivers, the iconic building is visible on the drive from both east and west. In the right season blossoms adorn the trees and bushes surrounding the architecture. 

Eastern Bhutan has its own charm. Trashigang is the largest district by population and area, but it is spread out and the town of the same name is one of the smallest. Many different cultural and ethnic groups meet in this pleasant centre. The mountains surrounding Trashigang are dotted with villages. .These traditional villages showcase an array of handi-crafts, agricultural pursuits, and are home to numerous small monasteries and temples. One of the most pleasant ways to reach the village retreats are by foot.  

Driving to the east dips from the high peaks to low valleys and passes gorges filled with lush vegetation. Monkeys, langurs, and on one trip a herd of Takin (goat antelopes) create much excitement.  A stop at Dametsi Monastery, the biggest and most important in Eastern Bhutan should be included, as well as an early morning hike along bird-rich Limenthang Road. 

bhutan takin

I can honestly say that journeys to Bhutan have been transformative for myself, and our past Tours of Exploration travelers. .

Is Bhutan worth the money?

With the high fees, and the added administrative burden on obtaining approvals, we have made the decision that our April 2023 group trip will likely be our last. We applaud the efforts to protect nature and culture but feel that money alone does not provide high value and low impact. Bhutan was worth the money prior to 2022, however we will assess this again after the April 2023 trip to weigh in again. 

Other perspectives can be read on the website of the Bhutan Sustainable Tourism Society

or

https://kuenselonline.com/tourism-development-looking-beyond-sdf/

For tours of Bhutan click here

bhutan punakha dzong

Bhutan travel advice 

  1. Read travel information from the Tourism Council of Bhutan for updates.
  2. Consider flying in one way and travelling by road the other way via India (2 spots in Assam, 1 via Sikkim - subject to change) or Sikkim.
  3. Watch the TED talk by Tshering Tobgay, on Carbon Neutrality. 
  4. Include some bird-watching and wildlife viewing in one of the preserved forests. And don’t forget to bring binoculars.
  5. Read some books before you go. A few on our list of recommended reading
    *Choden, Kunzang; The Circle of Karma, (a novel written by one of the most famous of Bhutan’s writers; interesting in terms of day to day life of Bhutan, and gender issues) (2005)
    *Das, Britta, Butter Tea at Sunrise: A year in the Bhutan Himalaya (2007)
    *Drexler, Madeline. A splendid isolation: Lessons in happiness from the Kingdom of Bhutan (2014)
    *Grimmett, Richard, Inskipp, Carol, & Inskipp, Tim; Birds of the India Subcontinent (2010)
    *Pommaret, Francoise Bhutan: Himalayan Mountain Kingdom (2009)
    *Zeppa, Jamie: Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A journey to Bhutan (2000)
    *Writersofbhutan.com Website of poems and Bhutanese literature
  6. Watch Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom, a recent film nominated for an Oscar in the Best International Feature.  
  7. Travel from February to May, or October to November.
  8. Include at least one-day hike. Some of the best one-day hikes I have experience with are Ha Valley, Paro Valley, Valley of the Black-necked cranes, the Yonkala/Limenthang Road, and Trashigang to Rangshikar Village. There are of course hundreds of other single and mutli-day treks including the newly restored Trans Bhutan Trail.
  9. Hotels are pretty scarce, so the earlier you book the better your chances. Some with the best guides and the Visa processing time. Bhutan is not a ‘last minute’ destination.
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