Bhutan, known for its contentment and restrictions on tourism, will quadruple entry prices

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Because of its abundance of natural beauty, sustainable development, and rich cultural heritage, the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan on the eastern edge of the Himalayas is frequently referred to as “the last Shangri-La.” Bhutan has long resisted the quick financial returns of mass tourism in favour of conservation. The strategy is in line with a cultural outlook in which a national happiness index, rather than the gross domestic product, is used to gauge a nation’s richness and prosperity.

Bhutan has had a distinctive “high value, low volume” tourism policy since 1974, when foreign visitors were first allowed to visit. This policy required that foreign visitors pay at least a daily rate of $250 that covered accommodations, meals, a required tour guide, and included a $65 “sustainable development fee” to the government. The package-like strategy intended to protect the nation’s natural resources by regulating where and how many foreign visitors were allowed into the country. While several travellers lamented the shoddy hotel plumbing, slow internet, and tasteless food, many praised the convenience of the prearranged tours.

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Bhutan’s government has revamped the tourism industry and will dramatically increase the cost of travel as it gets ready to reopen its borders on September 23. Visitors are no longer need to be on a package tour, but they will now need to pay the government $200 per day in addition to their own costs for lodging, meals, tours, and other travel-related charges. According to officials, the new policy will give Bhutan a new image as “an exclusive destination,” drawing in “discerning tourists” who will have access to a greater variety of higher-quality services.

Dr. Tandi Dorji, Bhutan’s foreign minister and chair of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, said, “COVID-19 has allowed us to reset, to reassess how the sector may be best structured and handled, so that it not only benefits Bhutan economically but also socially, while keeping carbon footprints low.” In the long run, we want to produce high-quality experiences for visitors as well as professional, well-paying jobs for our inhabitants.

However, a lot of tour providers worry about the change. They fear that the new arrangement will cause them to go out of business because they are unsure if they will be able to draw enough tourists with the higher fee or if tourists will even need their services at all now that they will have the option to book directly through hotels, tour guides, and other intermediaries.

Pelden Dorji, the CEO of the Bhutan Travel Club, a business that specialises in adventure travel experiences, said, “Just when we thought we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel after 2 1/2 years of being out of business, the government’s tourism amendment bill has thrown us back in the darkness and we have no idea how to go about it.”

Groups that reserved bundled vacations for later in the year but did not pay for them have already cancelled them with Dorji. He claimed that the participants thought they could not justify spending an extra $200 each day on top of the other costs that had been previously agreed upon as a part of the package agreement.

Deep affection and respect for the environment

All reservations and payments were to be done through licenced local tour operators under the old regulation, and they had to plan a predetermined itinerary with set dates and overnight stops.

According to Megan Petersen, 44, a beauty artist from London who visited Bhutan in 2017, “It’s basically a package vacation that lets you experience a true, unspoilt pocket of heaven while guarding itself from being invaded by visitors.” It’s brilliant, and locations with overtourism issues ought to apply the same strategy.

Petersen travelled through forests and alpine meadows for eight days with her sister as they explored Bhutan. They also hiked to cliff-side monasteries and spoke with locals in isolated villages. They camped and stayed in inexpensive three-star hotels the whole way. They provided everything as part of their package.

The fact that Petersen was able to experience the real people and culture without receiving the phoney tourist treatment, despite the lodges and food being very ordinary, only enhanced the trip. “The warmth and spirituality of Bhutanese people, as well as their profound love and respect for nature and their land, are what make Bhutan so unique.”

The approach essentially changed the policy’s minimum cost into the maximum because many travel agents would package their trip activities, meals, and other offers to not exceed the $250 day fee, according to government officials.

The policy, according to Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, “created more misunderstandings than comprehension and it has resulted in decreasing the services that we are theoretically able to deliver.”

The prime minister stated that Bhutan will be able to reinvest under the revised tourism bill, which was approved by the country’s parliament last month, “in bringing up the quality of tourism products, especially in terms of training our guides, bettering the quality of our hotels, restaurants, and food, while preserving the pristine environment that we have for generations to come.”

Investing in waste management infrastructure and safeguarding Bhutan’s biological corridors, nature parks, and important cultural treasures are two of the government’s top goals, according to Tshering. Bhutan’s constitution stipulates that 60% of the nation’s land must be covered in forests, and the government upholds tight measures to safeguard and maintain its carbon-negative status.

All of this is expensive, Tshering remarked.

The government’s sustainability tax was increased threefold, which surprised Bhutanese travel industry professionals who had anticipated some changes to the country’s tourism regulations. Many people are concerned that the new system will drive travellers to less expensive locations at a time when the country is desperately in need of tourism revenue to help its post-pandemic recovery.

Bhutan’s economy is heavily reliant on tourism revenue, which accounts for 6% of the nation’s GDP. Before the borders were closed in March of that year, over 29,000 tourists travelled to Bhutan, spending $19 million. According to the Tourism Council of Bhutan, 315,599 tourists came to the country in 2019, bringing in $225 million for the tourism sector. Earlier this year, the kingdom loosened its travel regulations, letting international visitors in on a case-by-case basis and forcing them to quarantine.

Tourism business owners contend that by incorporating all necessary services, the minimal package framework encouraged vacationers.

Why change something that is not wrong, everyone seems to be wondering, said Lotay Rinchen, co-founder of the travel agency Bridge To Bhutan, Bespoke Mindful Journeys. The previous approach, according to him, “protected the tourism industry and ensured a certain degree of quality and business.”

Rinchen was consistently in support of raising the minimum fee’s cost. He claims that without the packaging structure requirement, it will be more difficult to market the Bhutan brand. He has begun to look at the possibilities of providing premium goods like posh glamping, wellness retreats, and trendy boutique lodges to entice travellers ready to pay the higher prices. When high-end hotels like the Taj Tashi and Le Meridien Thimphu were formerly an option for travellers, many opted for the basic amenities included in the minimal daily charge package.

“This is not the appropriate time. The price increase will deter visitors, according to Dorji of the Bhutan Travel Club. He added that the new model could appeal to an older demographic of sightseeing travellers who would “skim from one luxury hotel to another, without experiencing the Bhutanese way of life.” Bhutan’s economy is in bad shape, and we had anticipated to open up tourism and start earning hard currency again.

The administration did not intend that, according to the prime minister. We want to ensure that the tourists we get are well-educated, knowledgeable, and aware of our requirements and distinguishing characteristics, he said.

Elsa Foster, a 44-year-old personal trainer from the United States who now resides in Scotland, travelled to Bhutan in 2018 on a mountain biking excursion with several friends. They started a seven-day off-roading journey, cycling through remote mountain valleys and villages, after spending a day seeing Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. Foster remarked that because they stayed in various places every night, having their tour agency book accommodations was quite convenient.

She said, “I really enjoyed how everything was bundled and structured with the former charge system; you just had to show up.” It’s a shame that Bhutan will become inaccessible to young people who won’t be able to afford it because to pay $200 on top of all the other expenditures, you’ve got to be fairly wealthy.

The new strategy is intended to have the opposite impact, drawing in a wider demography, the government hopes. All that we mean, Tshering stated, “is to welcome with a very open heart all people and potential guests who wish to come and experience the uniqueness we have to offer. The traveller will then receive value for their money spent in Bhutan, we will ensure.

According to the Tourism Council of Bhutan, 13,016 Americans travelled to the country in 2019 and stayed an average of 10 nights, making the United States, behind India and Bangladesh, one of the top tourist destinations for the country before the outbreak.

The government should use the additional tourism tax, according to Karma Tshering, an expert in environmental preservation and ecotourism, to achieve its sustainability objectives. This might include funding hiking trails, highway facilities, and training and support for service providers.

Without the minimum-spend policy, Tshering expressed concern that “our people will be left in the hands of the tourists to negotiate and bring down prices,” and that there could be “a chain impact on delivering quality services and high-end experiences.” The policy “helps our service providers obtain minimum revenue to support their services.

The transition presents an opportunity for several industries. The revision, according to Sonam Wangchuk, chairman of the Hotel & Restaurant Association of Bhutan, was long overdue and will result in positive change by giving all hotels and restaurants equal opportunities.

He stated, “I guess it’s survival of the fittest now, where one now needs to pull up their socks and become a go-getter.” Because the days of business knocking on your door are gone, we must work harder to make progress.