Indian tourists to Bhutan may soon be required to cough up a ‘Sustainable Development Fee’ and a ‘permit processing fee’ that would likely make visiting the Himalayan nation more expensive.
The Foreign Minister of Bhutan discussed his country’s new draft tourism policy with External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar this week, The Hindu reported, quoting unnamed sources.
The situation currently
As of now, all foreign tourists in Bhutan with the exception of Indians, Bangladeshis, and Maldivians must pay US $250 per person per day in the high season, and US $200 per person per day in the low season.
The low season is in the winter from December to February, and during the rains from June to August.
This covers accommodation, transport within Bhutan, a tourist guide, food and non-alcoholic drinks, and entry fees. It includes a US $65 daily “tourism levy” or “sustainable development fee (SDF)” (earlier known as “royalty” to the government), and the fees for the tourist’s visa.
There is an additional surcharge of US $40 for tourists travelling solo, and US $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, Indian tourists — well as those from Bangladesh and Maldives — have been exempt from these charges.
They can travel visa-free to Bhutan, and are not subject to the minimum expenditure floor of US $200/250. As a result, Indian tourists have the flexibility to set their own travel budgets, including budgets for stay and food.
According to the global travel portal Lonely Planet, a budget hotel in Thimphu can cost between US $20 and $40 a night, and a restaurant meal between US $7 and $15 per person. Top-end accommodation could cost between US $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 tourist visitors to Bhutan in 2018, over 1,80,000, or roughly 66%, were from India.
This is a huge potential revenue stream going untapped because Indians do not pay visa fees and SDF, and are not subject to the daily floor expenditure.
In April this year, the Bhutanese newspaper Kuensel reported that the country’s Fourth Pay Commission had recommended introducing SDF on “regional tourists”.
“The introduction of SDF of Nu 500 per head is estimated to generate Nu 425 million annually,” Kuensel quoted the report as saying. The Commission also asked the government to look into the possibility of enhancing the US $65 SDF for international tourists that has remained unchanged for the last 40 years or more, the Kuensel report said.
Bhutan’s currency is the Ngultrum (Nu), which is pegged to the Indian rupee.
The report quoted Dorji Dhradhul, director general of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, as saying there was, indeed, a plan to introduce a minimal fee on regional tourists and revise the SDF of US $65 for international tourists.
However, “This has nothing to do with the pay commission’s report. The council is also on the same track,” Dhradhul said.
The report quoted Dhradhul as saying that “the issue” with “regional tourists who come from Phuentsholing was about regulating and managing them because of which inconveniences occurred to others and to the guests themselves”.
These “regional tourists” were on their own, with “no one to guide them”, as a result of which their actions were sometimes out of line. “It’s because they don’t have a guide and they are not aware of the dos and don’ts, and then their reputation goes wrong, which is not good,” the report quoted Dhradhul as saying.
Last month, an Indian tourist was detained briefly by the Bhutanese Police after he climbed atop a chorten, a sacred Buddhist monument.
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