Responsible tourism in Bhutan

Tourism is still fairly new to Bhutan. Many Bhutanese were and still are very much agrarian mountain people with one foot planted in their deeply religious past, so it’s imperative to visit the kingdom with a sensitive and open mind informing all aspects of your trip.

Understanding responsible tourism in Bhutan is key to getting the most out of your experience traveling here. It’s a very different world to what many are used to, and our behaviour is the image that local people keep of us. It costs nothing to be patient, ask polite questions and show as much respect for the local culture as you can. Travel with courtesy and the Bhutanese will return it by the bucketload.

How much does it cost to visit Bhutan?

Visitors to Bhutan must pay a ‘Sustainable Development Fee’ (SDF) which, post-Covid, was dramatically increased (though as of September 2023 it has been reduced, see below). On top of the SDF, tourists from most countries must also engage the services of a tour company, as independent travel is not allowed.

The reasoning behind this policy is very clear: Bhutan wants high value but low volume tourism. The risk is that this steep hike puts a lot of potential visitors off, and time will tell if this gamble pays off, but certainly when Bhutan first introduced a tourist fee in 1991 it only served to make the idea of visiting Bhutan more intriguing, not less.

The Bhutan Sustainable Development Fee explained (correct as of September 2023)
The Bhutan Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) has decreased to just USD$100 per person per night. This replaces a ‘Buy One, Get One Free’-type of payment structure that was announced in June 2023.

Children aged 6-12 get a further 50 percent discount, so the fee for them is USD$50 per night, while children aged under 6 continue to visit for free.

The new SDF pricing scheme is intended to be in place until 31 August 2027.

People & culture in Bhutan

Bhutan responsible tourism policy

As opposed to most countries where economic improvement is often seen as the ultimate indicator of progress, in Bhutan a policy of sustainable development, or Gross National Happiness, has been in place since the 1970s. Once seen as a global anomaly, this approach has since seen the UN sit up and take note. This policy underpins most aspects of life in Bhutan, including its approach to tourism, which is moderated by the entry fee and the requirement to use an official tour company.

Tourism-wise, Bhutan has opened its doors very slowly relative to other Asian countries, and people visiting the country now will still be among the few that have. It is a deeply insular kingdom, unaccustomed to any culture other than its own, and vulnerable to irresponsible tourism. And in recent years the speed at which the country is playing catch up has come under the spotlight.

Certainly, under the rule of its Western-educated young king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, change will happen, but the odd mobile phone mast, or nightclub that has popped up in urban areas of Bhutan is not going to ruin centuries of deep-rooted culture. As tourists, though, we have a huge responsibility not to expect modern trappings and to accept what the country does have to offer in terms of comfort and amenities.

The Bhutan tourism fee – explained

Confusingly, the 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 easily spend far more if you opt for five-star 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 so far 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 too many of them arriving, so you won’t damage what’s precious about the place. Once tourist destinations become overdeveloped and exploited they lose a lot of their attraction; lots of us 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 use for its own benefit.

How does tourism help Bhutan?

Bhutan’s tourism policy is designed to protect and share the country’s incredible landscape with tourists while keeping it special for local people 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 is that the benefits of tourism will not be widely felt around the rest of the country. But a proportion of the ‘sustainable development fee’ goes towards funding the free education and healthcare that the Bhutanese government provides for its citizens.

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 country, but it seems to be the right one for them. And your guides will certainly speak proudly about it.

What you can do

Come prepared. Far more enlightening than it is complex, Bhutan past and present is an engaging and insightful topic to read up on. Speak to anyone you know who has been there and have a look at our Bhutan reviews to get a clear understanding of the cultural, spiritual and political beliefs of the Bhutanese, and how to visit their home respectfully.

Visitors to Bhutan pay the Sustainable Development Fee 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, 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 and buy genuine handicrafts.

Rajat Kumar, from our partner ExplorIndya, says: “Bhutan wants to jump forward because I think the young rulers feel that it is time to catch up, which is wrong. There is no comparison and there shouldn’t be a comparison to Bhutan because the minute you compare it with anything else you’re losing what makes it so unique. You compare Bhutan with Bhutan.

“Frugality should be the first thing that you consider as a traveler in Bhutan. Don’t expect to have the conveniences of modern travel – the minute tourists expect it, it’s what the administration will respond to because it equals money and there is no argument that a lot of the economy thrives on revenue that’s brought in by tourism, travel and discovery. The minute you start demanding things the way you want it to be back home, you are going to change the place. Instead, think to yourself ‘well, this is good for them and this is how they do it, so if it takes 50 years, fine, what’s the rush?’.”

Wildlife & environment issues in Bhutan

Forest cover

Bhutan is a hotspot for biodiversity, supported by a range of habitats and climactic zones running from the tips of its mountains to the depths of its valleys. Much of the country’s land has admirably been set aside in the interests of conservation. A minimum 60 percent forest cover is mandated in the constitution. However while a country actively taking steps to protect its trees is as uplifting as it is unusual, this arboreal accomplishment comes with its own drawbacks.

For one thing, more trees equals more animals like deer and wild boar, equals more predators equals more conflict with human populations. Bhutan has a small population of Bengal tigers for instance, and they have an uneasy relationship with farmers. Rapid and adequate compensation is one way of keeping things sweet when livestock goes missing.

Another issue is accessibility. The Bhutanese have historically had a multitude of uses for their forests, as well as just a source of firewood. Timber is widely used for construction, dead leaves are used as bedding for livestock and, later, compost, while the forests also provide a healthy supply of mushrooms. Allowing for regular access to forests to pursue these activities is essential, not only for the Bhutanese economy, but also maintaining the health of the forests. And already there have been complaints that some villagers, used to having a supply of construction materials on their doorstep, are now having to travel for many hours to find trees that they are allowed to cut down for timber.

Air pollution

With its sky-scraping Himalayan location and vast amount of forest cover, you’d expect Bhutan to have air of the greatest purity. But in fact, in some cities such as the capital, Thimphu, levels of air pollution can be up to three times the WHO recommended maximum, which represents a serious health hazard.

Air pollution in Bhutan has two main causes. A lot of it simply drifts across the border from India. The air in Siliguri, the nearest Indian city to Bhutan, has at times been more polluted than that of Delhi. The other significant driver is the use of firewood as a fuel. In fact, about 75 percent of Bhutan’s household energy use is made up of firewood, and the use of inefficient mud stoves for cooking and heating means that Bhutanese homes can get pretty smoky.

What you can do

Air pollution in Bhutanese cities gets particularly bad in winter, with people burning greater amounts of firewood to keep warm. Pack suitable clothing when visiting and ask for blankets in your accommodation, so that there is less need for the stove to be fired up on your behalf. And of course, if tending a stove yourself, never burn anything you’re not supposed to, such as waste.

Seek out responsible vacations that visit Bhutan’s national parks and other protected areas. Your entrance fees help to fund conservation efforts, while tour operators such as our partners will use local guides who are trained in understanding how to protect, not neglect, wildlife.

Residents in rural areas of Bhutan are leaving for cities in search of employment. That means fewer ‘stewards of the land’ which in turn means habitat becomes degraded. Trips visiting the Bhutanese countryside help to create jobs, spread tourism income, and keep rural communities from being hollowed out.

How will climate change affect vacations in Bhutan?

It is tragically ironic that Bhutan, which makes such a tiny contribution to global carbon emissions, will be disproportionately affected by the climate crisis.

Bhutan’s landscape has already been significantly altered by a warming climate. When they melt away, glacial lakes swell and pose an increased flooding risk. Many Bhutanese communities and tourism activities are concentrated in river valleys, and they will face a greater risk of flash flooding and landslides.

One of the great charms of traveling in Bhutan is that most of the vegetables on your plate at mealtimes will have been grown in the local area, and eating locally produced food is among the best ways to reduce a vacation’s carbon footprint. But as climate change melts the glaciers, Bhutanese famers will have more difficulty irrigating their crops and imported food will become more necessary – bumping up the cost, and the carbon emissions, of a meal.

Jams tomorrow – how will travel in Bhutan be affected by climate change?

Overland travel across Bhutan is already subject to long delays at times. In fact, getting stuck in a traffic jam is a regular feature of vacations and should be seen as an enjoyable way to meet local people in the same predicament. Generally these situations are treated with good humour, a fact of life in a mountainous country. Our partners ask their drivers to cut engines rather than let them idle whenever possible, reducing emissions while also saving fuel.

But with seasonal rainfall becoming ever more unpredictable, and periods of drought interspersed with increasingly intense monsoons, disruption on the roads will become more commonplace. Walking vacations will also likely become a more difficult prospect outside of summer as some routes become muddier, even impassable, due to heavier rainfall.

What you can do
We all have a role to play in staving off the worst effects of the climate crisis. But ultimately one thing matters more than any other – using your voice. Vote for decision-makers who take climate change seriously and get involved in environmental campaigns, both local and national.

It’s impossible to travel to Bhutan and not help make a difference to their climate change adaptation efforts. Anyone wanting to visit the kingdom has always had to pay a tourist fee that funds development while also keeping visitor numbers at sustainable levels. From September 2023 the fee has been reduced to $200 per day ($50 for children aged 6-12), and the government has said that it used in part to offset the carbon footprint of tourism and to improve carbon neutral transport.

A small thing, but remember to pack warm clothes when traveling to Bhutan. In rural areas, accommodations are usually heated by wood-fired stoves and the wood comes from surrounding forests. The warmer your clothing, the less need your hosts have to fire up the stove for your comfort.

Responsible tourism tips

Though no one will ever ask, a small donation to the monastery or dzong that you’re visiting will be much appreciated. Donations support the operations of the day: the cost of butter lamps and incense specifically. Place your donation on the altar, or if you want to make a specific donation intended to help pay for the monks’ food, clothing and transportation, look for a donation box or speak to your guide and explain that you want to make a donation for this purpose. The Bhutanese are a very calm and contemplative people. You may find yourself in social situations that are a bit out of your comfort zone, but it is important to remember that people here tend to exercise discretion in expressing feelings such as anger and affection towards each other. If you don’t understand something, ask quietly and be patient. Think before you take pictures. It’s easy to get snap-happy when presented with Bhutan’s incredible landscape and lifestyle, but some Bhutanese people do not like to be photographed because they believe that photos and videos contain part of the soul that could then be used for black magic. Remember, this may be your trip of a lifetime, but it’s their reality, so introduce yourself and ask permission. Whenever possible, it is a good idea to ask for a postal address and follow through by sending photographs back to local families.
Don’t stick your camera in people’s faces. Just because this is a unique country and they have managed to preserve their culture in a good way, it doesn’t give you the right to treat the people like you’re doing them a favour by being there.
– Brendan Phelan from our partner Exodus
When visiting ancient and sacred sites there are a few protocols that are handy to know and easy to follow: don’t climb on ruins, avoid touching any religious object, and when you walk around Buddhist monuments and temples, do so in a clockwise direction. That is – keep the monument on your right. Or just follow everyone else. It is generally not a problem to enter Buddhist temples, but take your shoes off and don’t take photos while you’re in there. Although welcoming and proud, the Bhutanese are protective of their tourism policy and understandably cagey, particularly about discussing their political situation with the Lotshampa (Bhutanese of Nepalese descent who were expelled from the country as ‘illegal aliens’) – if the conversation is brought to you then ask informed questions, but never steam ahead with your own opinions. Bhutan is a conservative and religious country. Legs, shoulders and arms should be covered when visiting religious places. Avoid touching people’s heads: it is considered a sacrilege, and do not stretch your legs in public, as legs are considered impure. When visiting temples, respect both the place and the people that pray there. Do not throw anything into the fire as it considered sacred and if for some reason such as a particular prayer time you are not permitted to enter, accept this graciously and ask your guide to ask when might be a better time to come back. Respect any animals and wildlife you might encounter. Do not feed any animals unless you are specifically given permission, avoid picking flowers no matter how beautiful they may be – it’s likely your guide will provide you with a reference book, so you can identify plants in situ. Do not touch or move fossils, and importantly, don’t stroke dogs – they can be aggressive towards strangers and stray dogs in Bhutan may carry rabies. In Bhutanese culture it is offensive to show what you receive as a gift or gratuity. Always give your tip directly to the recipient in a sealed envelope if possible, which you should never expect to see opened in front of you. Don’t give pens, money, or sweets to the local people you encounter on visits to villages – this may be seen as establishing an unequal relationship between tourists and local people. Instead, buy local handicrafts directly from villagers and show an interest in their skills. Along with narcotics and pornography, the import and export of antiques and religious artefacts is banned. If you’re unsure while shopping, check with your guide – if they’re unsure they can double-check with the government’s Antiquities Department. The buying and selling of tobacco products is banned in Bhutan, though you are allowed to bring in 200 cigarettes for personal consumption, which will be slapped with a 200 percent import duty price tag. It is prohibited to smoke in public offices and in government premises and an absolute no-no to smoke anywhere near temples or religious sites. The litter problem in Bhutan is growing and has increased with the wider availability of pre-packaged goods. The government has launched a Clean Bhutan project, which has a commitment to use volunteers to clean up streams, trekking routes, villages and towns, but that doesn’t mean we should add to the problem. Keep your waste to a minimum: avoid buying foods with plastic packaging from shops; buy additional food from local markets to avoid packaging; take an empty plastic bag with you on treks so you can pick up any additional litter you might spot; and take particularly harmful waste, such as batteries, back home with you.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Kandukuru Nagarjun] [Development: Steve Evans] [The Tourism Model: Richard Mortel] [Forest cover: Passang Tobgay] [Brendan Phelan quote: Aditya Karnad]