Bhutan has a longstanding reputation as a secluded, private location that only welcomes a select group of fortunate, wealthy visitors. Its spectacular fortress-like monasteries, timeless rural villages, and golden-roofed temples are as close to Shangri-La as you can find in the contemporary era. Unfortunately, going to paradise costs a lot of money.
Bhutan’s tourism policy has always been one of “high value, low impact,” with the straightforward goal of maximizing financial gains while reducing adverse effects on the country’s environment and culture. It’s the ideal illustration of the nation’s guiding principle of “Gross National Happiness.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the nation kept its doors tightly closed. It didn’t allow tourists back in until September 2022, but this time around, the nation’s stringent tourism laws had undergone a significant makeover. If you’re tempted to book a once-in-a-lifetime vacation to Bhutan, here’s the skinny on the country’s new travel regulations and step-by-step instructions for planning a journey to this extraordinary and enchanted Himalayan nation.
Which new tourism regulations exist?
Up until 2020, fully organized tours for foreign visitors cost a set minimum of $250 per person per day, of which US$65 went to the government to assist pay for free healthcare and education for Bhutanese nationals.
Foreign visitors will now be charged a Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) of US$200 per person per day starting in September 2022. According to the government, this fee will further support the growth of sustainable tourism, tourism training, and carbon offsetting.
The other significant difference is that tour prices are no longer fixed, giving tour operators the freedom to choose their own prices based on the activities or service levels provided, giving customers some control over expenses like hotel rates. The bad news is that travel expenses are no longer included and are now in addition to the daily price of US$200. If you read the fine print, you’ll discover that families receive a tiny discount, paying 50% of the SDF (or $100 per day) for children ages six to twelve and not paying anything at all for youngsters under five.
Another modification is the introduction of entrance fees for foreign visitors to the major attractions. These prices range from Nu 2000 (US$25) for the well-known Tiger’s Nest Monastery to Nu 1000 (US$12.50) for the majority of other well-liked temples and dzongs (monasteries that resemble fortresses). Most tours will cost an extra $100–200 as a result. On widely observed Buddhist festivals, the majority of these religious places will now be closed to visitors, which is unfortunate because these are sometimes the most vibrant times to visit.
How Will This Affect Bhutanese Tourism?
Travel to Bhutan, which was already a very elite destination, suddenly got more expensive. As a result, it is anticipated that fewer foreign tourists would visit the nation, and those who do may pick shorter excursions close to the well-known attractions in the area of Paro (Bhutan’s international airport) and the country’s capital Thimphu. Longer journeys to the intriguing but farther-flung central and eastern regions as well as hiking, which is typically more expensive to arrange than a cultural tour, are now considerably more expensive.
What about local tourists from India?
Indian visitors are the main exclusion to the new charge regime; they pay a significantly lower SDF price of only Nu 1200 (US$15) per person per day. To travel east of Thimphu, Indian tourists must make advance arrangements for a guide, hotel accommodations, and permits. You can do this on your own or through a Bhutanese agency.
Many Bhutanese travel agents note that it is difficult to understand how Bhutan can justify its fee system in the name of either sustainable tourism or avoiding cultural impact, given that Indian tourists make up 77% of Bhutan’s annual visitors (243,000 out of a total 315,600), and many arrive in their own vehicles and cook their own food on budget trips.
What is the current price of a vacation to Bhutan?
Most Bhutanese agencies will now charge between US$350 and US$450 per person per day for a fully included trip, up from the previous US$250 every day, when including the US$200 SDF per person per day. Trekking will probably cost more, and smaller groups of two or three people will be more expensive than more numerous individuals.
The new regulations do permit overnight stays in guest houses, historic farms, or rural homestays, which are somewhat less expensive than tourist hotels. The attractiveness of community tourism was constrained by the previous regulations, which charged the same daily rate whether you stayed on the floor of a cozy four-star hotel or in a small homestay. These days, everything costs money. The drawback is that you will still pay roughly US$300 per day for your vacation even if you stay in a basic rural homestay, making budget travel extremely expensive.
How to make travel plans
Tourists required to book their vacation through a licensed Bhutanese travel agent up to 2022. Now that travelers are permitted to book tours directly with hotels, it is theoretically possible to only book a hotel, a guide, and a few airport transfers directly with a hotel if you are just planning a trip to the towns of Thimphu and Paro. This would save you money on transportation.
You are still better off reserving with an established agency if your schedule includes many overnight breaks, cultural programmers, day hikes, trekking, and other activities. The tourism infrastructure in Bhutan is not yet sufficiently established to provide separately bookable transportation and guide services.
Early preparation is key. To finalize your schedule, pay the tour operator, and receive your visa approval, you will need at least a month. Book your flights to Bhutan earlier if you plan to travel during the peak travel seasons of October, November, March, and April.
Must-see locations in Bhutan
Hike up to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan’s most famous temple, where the ancient shrines are supposed to be held to the rock face by the hairs of angels.
The most stunning stronghold in Bhutan, Punakha Dzong, is bordered with purple jacaranda blossoms in the spring and is the site of some of the most outstanding events.
Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, is home to numerous historically significant monasteries, protector deities, a takin reserve, archery competitions, a fantastic weekend market, and the beautiful Tashi Choe Dzong, which served as the country’s old seat of government.
the best experiences in Bhutan
A Tsechu (Religious Dance Festival) is recommended.
In Bhutan, almost every dzong or temple hosts an annual festival that includes ceremonial monk dances, vibrant costumes, and regional fairs. The major events in Thimphu and Paro are a highlight of the year in Bhutan, but it’s also worthwhile to look for a less well-known one.
On foot, explore Bhutan.
In Bhutan, even a little stroll can take you to a revered meditation center, a Buddhist pilgrimage site, or through a forest of ancient rhododendrons in bloom. It is without a doubt the ideal way to appreciate the nation’s unspool rural charm. Try the Bumdrak trek, which takes you on a detour hiking route to the well-known Taktsang Monastery, for an overnight excursion.
Unwind in a classic hot stone bath.
The ideal way to unwind after a long day of sightseeing is to soak in a traditional wooden bathtub from Bhutan that is filled with water that has been heated by healing hot stones and scented with mountain herbs.
Time to visit is best
The finest times to visit Bhutan are in March and April, when the weather is mild and the rhododendrons are in bloom, and in October and November, when the weather is clear and the most well-known events are taking place.
There is no incentive to travel during the chilly winter (December to February) or rainy monsoon months (June to September) now that there are no longer incentives for off-season travel.
How much time should I devote to Bhutan?
Providing you can afford it without taking money from your children’s college fund! You might see the top attractions in the Paro Valley and the eccentric capital Thimphu with a four-day journey. If you have a week, you can proceed into the lovely Punakha Valley through the Dochu-la mountain pass.
You will need a few weeks to travel to the far east or the central Bumthang Valley, both of which are intriguing but remote; however, a domestic flight from Thimphu might shorten this journey. In the end, it is likely that you will only visit Bhutan once in your lifetime, so make the most of it.
How to obtain a visa for Bhutan
The next step is to pay your agency (often by a bank transfer) to the agency’s account at the Bhutan National Bank after you and the agency have agreed on your itinerary and trip price. Hopefully, this will only require one trip to the bank. Be prepared to describe Bhutan’s location.
You will complete a visa application after the wire has been successful and give your agency a digital photo and scan of your passport photo page. Obtaining a visa is really a formality, and after a few days, the organization will email you a copy of your visa authorization. Your tour price most likely already includes the $40 visa fee.
You will need to apply for your visa through the Department of Immigration and pay the SDF fee directly to the government if you decide to handle everything on your own. The specific application procedure hasn’t yet been made public.
You need to show your visa authorization to immigration when you arrive at the Paro airport or the land border with India, and they will stamp the visa into your passport.
Ways to get to Bhutan
The national airline Druk Air flies most tourists into Bhutan’s Paro airport from Delhi, Bangkok, or Kathmandu. Before checking in, you must print out a copy of your visa authorization.
Foreign visitors will once again be able to enter Bhutan overland through one of three border crossings with India when tourism is resumed in September 2022. In truth, the only border that receives a lot of tourist traffic is to Phuentsholing, primarily from daring tourists who combine