It’s now cheaper for travelers to go to Bhutan — if they stay long enough

News

Travelers can avoid paying some of Bhutan’s daily tourism fees, as long as they stay at least five nights.

Last week, Bhutan announced changes to its Sustainable Development Fee which made headlines after it jumped from $65 to $200 a day when the country reopened its borders in September.

Travelers who pay the SDF for the first four days can stay an additional four days without paying the fee, according to an announcement on Bhutan’s Department of Tourism website.  

Similarly, travelers who pay the fee for the first seven days can stay an additional seven days without paying for the second week, while those who pay for 12 days are exempt from paying it for 18 days thereafter, it said.

This equates to $600 in savings for tourists staying a week, and some $3,600 in savings for those staying a month.

The changes, effective June 1, are meant to encourage vacationers to stay longer. Bhutan’s Department of Immigration created a website where travelers can calculate potential savings under the different incentive programs.

Travelers who have already booked trips to Bhutan can take advantage of the new incentives by canceling their visas and re-applying for a new one, according to the announcement.

Government officials are quick to point out that Bhutan’s SDF has not changed however, and remains $200 per traveler per night.

The new fee incentives — which officials have called a “promotion” — are set to remain in place until the end of 2024, after which “the standard SDF will apply once again,” according to tourism department.

A controversial fee

Spending at least $200 a day isn’t new to travelers to Bhutan.

Prior to the pandemic, tourists were required to spend a minimum of $200 to $250 per day, which was often wrapped into tour packages that included hotel, food and transportation charges as well as the SDF, which was $65 at the time.

Bhutan scrapped that spending structure in 2022 in favor of a set $200 SDF for all tourists except:

  • Children aged 6 to 11 years old, who pay 50% of the daily SDF to visit, or $100;
  • Children 5 and younger, who are exempt from the fee.

Additionally, Indian nationals are charged 1,200 rupees per night ($14.50), while day visitors to Bhutanese border towns do not need to pay the SDF.

Supporters of Bhutan’s $200 daily fee say it furthers the country’s goal to attract “high value, low volume” tourists who can afford the fees which will go toward upgrading infrastructure, protecting the environment and creating jobs that provide fair wages and working conditions.

But others argue the increased rates are “elitist,” and will harm the country’s travel industry that was already reeling from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.  

News that officials were considering changing the SDF followed discussions between Bhutan’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering and members of Bhutan’s tourism and business communities in April, according to a local media report.

After citizens argued the tourism fees were harming investment in the country and discouraging long vacations, Tshering assured community members that changes were in the works, the report said.

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