Responsible tourism in Bhutan

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

If you find yourself holding your phone up searching for a signal, think again. There was no television here before 1999 and the country’s progress is measured by Gross National Happiness as opposed to GDP, an approach once considered a global anomaly, but that has since seen the UN sit up and take note.

To understand responsible tourism in Bhutan is to get the most out of your experience traveling here. It’s an entirely different world and our behaviour there will be the image that local people keep of us. It costs nothing to be patient, ask questions and show as much support for the local culture as you can, so travel with respect and the Bhutanese will return it by the bucketload.

People & culture


The doors to Bhutan have opened very slowly, relative to other Asian destinations, 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 therefore relatively unprepared or, more accurately, underprepared for tourism. But that is the very point. Although from a typical western standpoint development might look retarded by several decades, 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 internet cafe 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 act in accordance with what the country does have rather than highlight what it does not.

What can you 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 gauge a clear understanding of the cultural, spiritual and political beliefs of the Bhutanese and how best you can slot seamlessly into their home.
Rajat Kumar from our supplier ExplorIndya:
“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 locals 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 you travel to. 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?’”

The Tourism Model: how much bang for your buck?

Confusingly, the $250 daily traveler tariff (reduced to $200 in Jan, Feb, Jun, July, Aug and Dec) 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 hordes 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.
Ralph Foulds from our supplier Uncover the World Travel:
“I think the Bhutanese are striking a pretty good balance between opening up the country to tourism and therefore benefitting their people, but still protecting their culture and traditions. I think they’re doing it pretty much better than anywhere else and I know when they made the decision to open up to tourism they looked at places like Khao San Road in Bangkok and Thamel in Kathmandu and thought that that was the kind of environment they didn’t want for Bhutan. A lot of people think that a restricted number of people are allowed to visit Bhutan and that their policy is to only let a certain number in, which isn’t the case at all. It’s self-limiting by the price that they set. The Bhutanese are proud of their policy and they’re proud that the government is taking revenue from it; our guides are very open in talking about how a certain amount of the tourist tariff goes to the government and gets spent on education and health.”

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 completely out of your western comfort zone, but it is important to remember that the locals exercise discretion in expressing their feelings, 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 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 good idea to ask for a postal address and follow through by sending photographs back to local families.
Brendan Phelan from our supplier Exodus: “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.”
When visiting ancient and sacred sites there are a few protocol 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. 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 about discussing their political situation with the Lotshampa (Bhutanese of Nepalese descent) – if the conversation is brought to you then ask informed questions, but never steam ahead with your own opinions. You will learn a much greater understanding of their point of view if you speak less and listen more. Bhutan is a conservative and religious country. Women should have their legs and shoulders covered and men should wear full-length trousers and tops with long sleeves. 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 – time of day, 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 and it can encourage begging and may be seen to establish a non-equal relationship between tourist and local with tourists being seen as simply ‘givers’ giving to ‘the poor’. Instead, buy local handicrafts directly from villagers and show an interest in their skills. Sweets may seem like an ideal gift for children, but access to dentists is extremely limited to rural dwellers and the last thing you want to give them is tooth decay! Along with narcotics and pornography, the import and export of antiques and religious artifacts 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% 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 programme, 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.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Kandukuru Nagarjun] [Development: Steve Evans] [The Tourism Model: Richard Mortel] [Brendan Phelan quote: Aditya Karnad]