Bhutan is well-known for its isolationist history, its policy of Gross National Happiness, and its commitment to preserving its natural environment. Another thing that keeps Bhutan on people’s minds is its expensive visa fee.
Let’s get some misconceptions out of the way first. The visa fee, called a daily tariff, costs $250 US daily in the high season (spring, fall) and $200 in the low season (summer, winter). While this looks like a lot of money at first, realize that it includes a car, driver, guide, as well as all accommodation and meals. There is a $40 daily surcharge on top of the tariff for individual travelers or a $30 per person surcharge for a group of two.
Another misconception is that you must travel with a group. This is not required. As an individual, you can still go to Bhutan, but you are paired with a guide, as are all foreign travelers. As opposed to some other countries which require guides, your Bhutanese guide is not present to “spy” on you, and you’re not required to stay together at every moment. You just can’t travel to another city without your guide.
The Bhutanese government is transparent about where the money goes. $65 of the tariff per day goes directly to social programs, building hospitals, and running schools. Typically, I would worry that these funds would be misappropriated, but it appears that there aren’t the huge corruption issues which plague neighboring countries. So when you see a group of school kids dressed in traditional gho and kira, heading to class in the morning, you can feel good about supporting them.
In a way, the daily tariff policy is brilliant. By pushing up the price, the Bhutanese have made their country more exclusive, keeping the demand high. People want to go to a place where not many others go to, right?
The country has been criticized for the strategy, and unfortunately, the fees do keep out many respectful, responsible travelers that simply can’t afford to travel in Bhutan.
The high daily tariff seems in part to be a maneuver to “not be like Nepal” which many Bhutanese think is filled with drunk and stoned backpackers who corrupt the youth and Nepalese values.
The truth is, there are plenty of culturally-respectful backpackers and low-budget travelers who are interested in learning about and experiencing cultures different than their own, rather than just being self-centered hedonists.
Bhutan knows their price is high and that’s why they want to deliver a high-quality product. Their culture is distinct and rich and they try to maintain good quality facilities like hotels and transport.
They also feel that fewer tourists give the individual a better travel experience. Nobody wants to show up at a Bhutanese festival and have it be full of foreigners.
Increased tourism inherently puts pressure on natural resources—something with which the Bhutanese are well endowed. However, excessive degradation of their environment is not something they’re willing to compromise.
The fact of the matter is that Bhutan is lacking hard currency. Tourism is one of the only industries besides hydro-power (which it sells to India) that it has to offer the outside word. So it’s hard to blame them for trying to capitalize on this.
The other issue reverts back to low impact. Even though Bhutan’s educated are quite progressive in many ways, they are intrinsically conservative in their attitudes towards outward influences being inflicted on the traditions of their country’s people. Low-impact to the Bhutanese encompasses a tactic of less contact with the outside world, hoping to prevent westernization.
Conversely, in many ways, satellite television has a much greater impact on the Bhutanese than me showing up to watch one of their archery tournaments or chatting with some novice monks outside of a monastery.
Overall, I left Bhutan with a warm feeling and optimistic thoughts. Our itinerary was fantastic, the accommodation and meals were up to standards, our guide and driver were friendly and professional, and our tour operator was well-organized. And the country is downright beautiful.
To me, independent travel affords the opportunity to make personal connections with people, even if it’s as simple as riding the village bus or overcoming a language barrier while trying to order food at a local café. I don’t travel to influence locals that my ways are best, but rather to learn about them and their culture. If they are curious about me and my lifestyle, I will share with them.
This is the joy I get from traveling around the world as an independent traveler. Breaking down stereotypes, and promoting a greater understanding between people; celebrating universal values and respecting differences.
Unfortunately, I was somewhat limited in my interactions with Bhutanese on my trip. That said, technically you could design your own itinerary to relax in or explore a town for a couple days, hang out with locals without your guide, but you’d be paying a hefty price for the privilege.
Only you can be the judge of that. If you want to experience traveling in Bhutan, paying the price tag is your only option at the present moment. Like I said, I had a memorable time and enjoyed every aspect of the trip, minus the lack of independence.
Thanks to Bridge to Bhutan who organized our trip and helped explain exactly how the daily tariff and visa policy works. Getting a visa to Bhutan may be easier than you think. Just contact any tour agency and they will appeal to the government on your behalf. To save money and experience Bhutan with fewer fellow tourists, consider coming during the winter or summer months.