Confusingly, the $250 daily traveler tariff you’ll need to pay to visit Bhutan is often referred to as a tax. It isn’t a tax; it’s an entry fee – a minimum amount you will need to spend on your trip to enter Bhutan, including tax, visa, lodging, food, guide and travel within the country. You can’t spend less than that rate, but you can spend far more if you opt for ‘5* properties’ over more authentic, rural accommodation options.
And so the myth that Bhutan is hugely expensive perpetuates. What the country is trying to achieve – and is managing to achieve – is not just a high value tourism model, but a low impact one too: charge people a substantial amount of money to enter and you won’t have hoards of them, so you won’t damage what’s precious about the place. Once tourist destinations become overdeveloped and exploited we no longer want to go there; we all want to go to unspoilt places and there’s a great irony in that, but it’s an irony that Bhutan understands and is striving to control.
The tourism policy in place was designed to protect and share the country’s incredible landscape with tourists while keeping it special for the locals too, a point that supports their pioneering philosophy of Gross National Happiness, so the question that remains is whether the income from tourism, which is substantial, is spread widely enough? When you have a small number of tourists in very defined areas the risk with their strategy is that the benefits of tourism will not be widely felt, but $65 out of every $250 fee goes towards funding the free education and healthcare that the Bhutanese government provides for its citizens and although about 30% of the rural population live under the poverty line, you don’t see beggars, slums or homelessness, so they must be doing something right.
The line of thought on Bhutan’s tourism model could run and run – is it sustainable? Probably. But it’s also relatively fledgling. Does it defy global economic sensibility? Probably. But the Bhutanese are not conventional. It might not be the right approach for every destination, but it seems to be the right one for them.
What can we do?
Put simply, visitors to Bhutan pay $250 a day because they know they cannot buy the same environment and culture anywhere else, at any price. Just as we hope Bhutan will not become blinded by the tourist dollar, so we must not be lured by the promise of ‘luxury’ in some of the country’s less sustainable, starred hotels. Make sure your money stays in local hands: stay in log cabins, homestays or heritage properties, use local guides, ask your guide where you can eat locally – they’re often more than happy to swerve an itinerary item in favour of this if you ask politely, shop in local food markets, buy genuine handicrafts, and ask your guide about worthwhile tourism projects that you can visit and get involved in.