Bhutan will now impose a “sustainable development fee” (SDF) on Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian tourists, making visits to the Himalayan nation more expensive. The decision has been taken to protect the ecology of the country, amid a spike in visitors from India.
So far, tourists from the three countries had been exempt from a levy that other nationals had to pay — $250 per person per day during the peak season, and $200 per person per day during the low season. The low season is in the winter from December to February, and during the rains from June to August.
The new legislation, titled “The Tourism Levy and Exemption Bill of Bhutan 2020”, passed in Bhutan’s lower house on Tuesday, requires visitors from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives to pay a fee of 1,200 ngultrums (Rs 1200.17) per day, probably from July onwards.
As per Bhutanese newspaper Kuensel, Bhutan received over 2 lakh “regional tourists” in 2018. Regional tourists refers to tourists from Bangladesh, Maldives and India.
The new levy, however, will not be applicable across Bhutan. To promote tourism in the less popular Eastern Bhutan, the SDF will not be levied on tourists travelling to 11 districts in the region. This exemption will be applicable until December 2024, after which it will be up to the new government to decide if it continues.
Also, while children below the age of five will be exempt, those between the ages of six and 12 years will have to pay a fee of Rs 600.
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The situation before SDF
As of now, all foreign tourists in Bhutan, with the exception of Indians, Bangladeshis, and Maldivians, pay $250 per person per day in the high season, and $200 per person per day in the low season.
This covers accommodation, transport within Bhutan, a tourist guide, food and non-alcoholic drinks, entry fee, a $65 “tourism levy” or “sustainable development fee (SDF)” (earlier known as “royalty” to the government), and the fee for the tourist’s visa.
There is an additional surcharge of $40 for tourists travelling solo, and $30 for each tourist in a group of two.
In effect, this is a tourist’s all-inclusive daily expenditure in Bhutan, with only the cost of flying in and out of the country, shopping, alcohol, and tips excluded.
However, “regional tourists” can travel visa-free to Bhutan, and are not subject to the minimum expenditure floor of $200/250. As a result, Indian tourists so far had the flexibility to set their own travel budgets, including for stay and food.
According to the global travel portal Lonely Planet, a budget hotel in Thimphu can cost between $20 and $40 a night, and a restaurant meal between $7 and $15 per person. Top-end accommodation could cost between $500 and $1,750 a night, according to Lonely Planet.
Why the change
There has been concern in Bhutan over the impact that the massive influx of tourists can have on the country’s fragile Himalayan ecosystem. The bulk of the tourist inflow is from India — of the 2,74,000 tourists to Bhutan in 2018, over 1,80,000, or roughly 66 per cent, were from India.
With Indians not paying visa fee, SDF, and the daily floor expenditure, this was a huge potential revenue stream going untapped.
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