Bhutan’s small Buddhist state on the eastern side of the Himalayas, often known as the “Last Sangri-la” for its natural beauty, sustainable development and rich cultural heritage, has long resisted the rapid economic return of mass tourism. In favor of conservation. This approach is aligned with a cultural philosophy where the country’s wealth and prosperity are measured, through the National Happiness Index, as an alternative to GDP.
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Since 1974, when foreigners were allowed to visit Bhutan, the country has a unique “high value, low volume” tourism policy, which requires international visitors to pay a daily rate of at least $ 250 which includes accommodation, food, compulsory. Includes भ्रमण 65 “sustainable development fee” for tour guides and government. The package-like approach was aimed at conserving the country’s natural resources by limiting the number of international visitors and controlling their whereabouts. While some tourists complained about the hotel’s plumbing, slow internet access and soft food, many praised the ease of a pre-arranged visit.
Now that the Bhutanese government is preparing to reopen its border on September 23, it has modified the tourism system and will significantly increase the cost of travel. Visitors no longer need to be on package tours, but they will now have to pay a शुल्क 200 daily fee directly to the government, and pay leave for their accommodation, food, travel and other travel expenses. The new policy will re-brand Bhutan as a “unique destination”, attracting “discerning tourists” who will have access to a wide range of high-quality services.
“COVID-19 has allowed us to rethink how the region can be better structured and operated, which will benefit Bhutan not only economically but also socially, keeping the carbon footprint low,” said Dr. Tandy Dorjee said. Minister of Foreign Affairs and Chairman of the Tourism Council of Bhutan. “In the long run, our goal is to create high-value experiences for visitors, and better pay and business jobs for our citizens.”
But many tour operators are concerned about the change. They are worried that the new structure will leave them without any business – uncertain whether they will be able to attract a sufficient number of tourists at a higher fee, or if tourists will need their services, they will now have a choice. To book directly through hotels, tour guides and the like.
“The government’s tourism amendment bill has plunged us into darkness and we don’t know how to go about it,” he said. “The company specializes in adventure travel experiences,” said Pelden Dorjee, CEO of Bhutan Travel Club.
Dorjee has already received cancellations from groups that booked but unpaid packaged trips they had scheduled years later. He said group members felt it would not be fair to pay an additional $ 200 a day on top of other expenses they had agreed to as part of a previous package agreement.
‘Deep love and respect for nature’
Under the previous policy, all bookings and payments had to be made through registered local tour operators, who were required to arrange a pre-arranged itinerary with fixed dates and overnight stops.
“It’s basically a package tour that lets you see an authentic, untouched corner of paradise while protecting yourself from tourist attacks,” said Megan Peterson, a 44-year-old London-based makeup artist who visited Bhutan in 2017. “These are geniuses and places should use the same model in the problem of overtourism.
Peterson spent eight days exploring Bhutan with her sister, trekking through forests and mountain plains, hiking to rocky temples, and visiting local communities in remote villages. During their journey, they camped and settled in basic three-star accommodation. Everything was included in their package.
“The lodges and food were very average, but it added to the experience of being able to experience the real community and culture without fake tourist treatments,” Peterson said. “What makes Bhutan special is the kindness and spirituality of its people and their deep love and respect for nature and their land.”
Government officials say the previous policy discouraged additional out-of-pocket expenses, as many travel agents will deposit their travel activities, food and other offers no more than the दर 250 daily rate – a practice that effectively maximizes the policy’s minimum rate.
“The policy has led to more misunderstandings than understood and has reduced the services we could potentially offer,” said Prime Minister Lotte Chiring.
Under an amended tourism bill passed by the Bhutanese parliament last month, Bhutan will “reinvest in improving the quality of tourism products, especially training our guides, and improving the quality of our hotels, restaurants and food. Let’s preserve the original environment we have for the next generation, ‘said the Prime Minister.
Investing in waste management infrastructure and conserving Bhutan’s biological corridors, nature parks and major cultural heritage is one of the government’s top priorities, Chiring said. Bhutan’s constitution states that 60% of the country’s land must be forested and has strict laws to protect and maintain its carbon-negative status.
“It all costs money,” Chiring said.
“Why fix something that is not broken?”
Bhutanese travel representatives had expected some improvement in the country’s tourism policy, but many feared that the new model would lead tourists to cheaper destinations after the government tripled the sustainability tax. Dollars to boost its post-epidemic recovery.
Tourism revenue is a major contributor to Bhutan’s economy, accounting for 6% of the country’s gross domestic product. About 29,000 tourists visited Bhutan in 2020, before the border closed in March of that year, and earned 19 million in revenue. In 2019, 315,599 tourists visited, which earned the tourism industry $ 225 million, according to the Tourism Council of Bhutan. The state eased its travel restrictions earlier this year, allowing foreign visitors on a case-by-case basis and requiring them to be quarantined.
Tourism operators argue that the minimum package framework encourages tourists by including all essential services.
“Everyone is asking, ‘Why fix something that’s not broken?’ “It has secured the travel industry and ensured a certain level of quality and trade,” said Lotte Rinchen, co-founder of the tourism company Bridge to Bhutan, Bespoke Mindful Journey.
Rinchen has always been in favor of raising the minimum wage. But without the need for package structure, he says it would be difficult to sell the Bhutan brand. He is exploring the possibility of providing luxury items to lure tourists who want to pay higher costs, such as chic boutique lodges, wellness retreats and upscale glamping. Previously tourists could pay extra for high-end hotels like Taj Tashi and Le Meridien Thimphu, but many opted for the basic options included in the minimum daily fee package.
“This is not the right time. Bhutan’s economy is in bad shape, and we expected tourism to open up and start earning hard money, but this price increase keeps tourists away,” said Dorjee of the Bhutan Travel Club. Older tourists who “will skim from one luxury hotel to another without experiencing the Bhutanese lifestyle.”
The prime minister said that was not the intention of the government. “We want to ensure that we get a set of intellectually high-level, knowledgeable and conscious tourists about our needs and unique features,” he said.
Elsa Foster, a 44-year-old American personal trainer living in Scotland, took a mountain biking tour in Bhutan in 2018 with a group of friends. After a one-day visit to Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, they embarked on a seven-day off-road. Bicycle travel through adventurous, remote mountain valleys and villages. Foster said it was very practical to book hotels by their tour agent as they stay in a different place each night.
“I really liked how everything was organized and packaged with the old fee system; you had to show everything you had to do,” she said. “But to pay 200 200 above all other expenses, you have to be very rich and it’s a shame that Bhutan will be inaccessible to young people who can’t afford it.”
The government hopes the new policy will have the opposite effect, attracting a wider demographic. “We mean a very open-hearted welcome to all individuals and potential visitors who wish to visit and experience the uniqueness we offer,” Chiring said. “Then we will make sure that the visitor gets the value of the money spent in Bhutan.”
According to Bhutan’s Tourism Council, 13,016 Americans visited and spent an average of 10 nights in 2019, making it one of the top tourist markets for the United States, behind India and Bangladesh.
Environmental protection and eco-tourism expert Karma Chhiring said the government should use the increased tourism tax to meet its sustainable goals, which include investing in hiking, highway facilities and training and assistance to service providers.
He worries that without a minimum spending policy, “which helps our service providers get the minimum revenue to support their services, will leave our people in the hands of tourists to negotiate and reduce prices,” Chiring said. There may be a “chain effect” in providing quality services and high-end experiences.
Some areas see opportunities for change. Sonam Wangchuk, president of the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan, said the amendment was long overdue and would make a positive difference if all hotels and restaurants had equal opportunities.
“I think it’s now for the survival of the fittest, where now one has to pull off his socks and become a go-getter,” he said. “The old days of knocking on your door are long gone, so the harder we work, the more promising it will be.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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