Famous for Happiness, and Limits on Tourism, Bhutan Will Triple Fees to Visit

As Venice and other European hot spots explore permit systems and daily fees to limit the number of tourists, the tiny Buddhist kingdom will require a $200 tax on international visitors when it reopens this fall.

The Buddha Dordenma statue overlooks Thimphu Valley in Bhutan.
The Buddha Dordenma statue overlooks Thimphu Valley in Bhutan. Credit…Gilles Sabrié for The New York Times

The tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan on the eastern edge of the Himalayas, often referred to as “the last Shangri-La” for its abundance of natural beauty, sustainable development and rich cultural heritage, has long resisted the quick financial returns of mass tourism in favor of conservation. The approach is aligned with a cultural philosophy where the country’s wealth and prosperity is measured, through a national happiness index, as an alternative to the gross domestic product.

Since 1974, the year when foreigners were first permitted to visit Bhutan, the country has had a unique “high value, low volume” tourism policy, requiring international visitors to pay at least a daily rate of $250 that covered accommodations, meals, a mandatory tour guide and included a $65 “sustainable development fee” to the government. The package-like approach was aimed to preserve the natural resources of the country by limiting the number of international visitors and controlling where they went. While some tourists complained of poor hotel plumbing, slow internet access and bland food, many appreciated the ease of the predetermined tours.

Now as the government of Bhutan prepares to reopen its borders on Sept. 23, it has overhauled the tourism system and will significantly raise the cost to visit. Visitors no longer need to be on a package tour, but they will now have to pay a $200 daily fee directly to the government, and pay separately for their accommodation, meals, tours and other travel expenses. The new policy, officials say, will rebrand Bhutan as “an exclusive destination,” attracting “discerning tourists” who will have access to a wider range of higher-quality services.

“Covid-19 has allowed us to reset, to rethink how the sector can be best structured and operated, so that it not only benefits Bhutan economically, but socially as well, while keeping carbon footprints low,” said Dr. Tandi Dorji, Bhutan’s foreign minister and chairman of the Tourism Council of Bhutan. “In the long run, our goal is to create high-value experiences for visitors, and well-paying and professional jobs for our citizens. ”

But many tour operators express anxiety over 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 with the higher fee, or if tourists will even require their services at all, now that they will have the option to book directly through hotels, tour guides and the like.

“Just when we thought we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel after two-and-a-half years of being out of business, the government’s tourism amendment bill has thrown us back in the darkness and we have no idea how to go about it,” said Pelden Dorji, the chief executive officer of the Bhutan Travel Club, a company that specializes in adventure travel experiences.

Mr. Dorji has already received cancellations from groups that had booked, but not paid for, packaged trips they had scheduled later in the year. He said the group members felt that they could not justify paying an additional $200 a day on top of the other expenses that had been agreed upon as part of the previous package deal.

Under the previous policy, all bookings and payments had to be made through registered local tour operators, who were required to organize a prearranged 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 itself from being invaded by tourists,” said Megan Petersen, 44, a London-based makeup artist who visited Bhutan in 2017. “It’s genius and places with overtourism problems should use the same model.”

Ms. Petersen spent eight days exploring Bhutan with her sister, trekking through forests and mountain meadows, hiking to cliff-side temples and meeting local communities in remote villages. Throughout their trip, they camped and stayed in basic three-star accommodations. Everything was included in their package.

“The lodges and food were pretty average, but that just added to the experience of being able to experience the real community and culture without the fake tourist treatment,” Ms. Petersen said. “What makes Bhutan so 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 spending, as many travel agents would assemble their trip activities, food and other offerings to not exceed the $250 daily rate — the practice effectively turned the policy’s minimum rate into the maximum.

“The policy caused more misunderstandings than understanding and it has resulted in lowering the services that we are potentially able to offer,” said Prime Minister Lotay Tshering.

Under the revised tourism bill, which was passed by the Bhutanese parliament last month, Bhutan will be able to reinvest “in bringing up the quality of tourism products, especially in terms of training our guides, bettering the quality of our hotels, restaurants and food, while preserving the pristine environment that we have for generations to come,” the prime minister said.

One of the government’s main priorities, Dr. Tshering said, is to invest in waste management infrastructure and protect Bhutan’s biological corridors, nature parks and main cultural assets. Bhutan’s constitution mandates that 60 percent of the country’s land must be under forest cover and maintains strict laws to protect and uphold its carbon-negative status.

“This all costs money,” Dr. Tshering said.

While Bhutanese travel representatives had expected some reforms to the country’s tourism policy, the threefold increase to the government’s sustainability tax came as a shock, with many fearing that the new model will turn tourists toward cheaper destinations at a time when the country is desperate for tourism dollars to boost its post-pandemic recovery.

Tourism revenue is a key contributor to Bhutan’s economy, making up 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Some 29,000 tourists visited Bhutan in 2020 before the borders were shuttered in March of that year, and generated a revenue of $19 million. In 2019, 315,599 tourists visited, earning the tourism industry $225 million, according to the Tourism Council of Bhutan. The kingdom eased its travel restrictions earlier this year, allowing in foreign visitors on a case-by-case basis and requiring them to quarantine.

Tourism operators argue that the minimum package framework incentivized tourists by including all essential services.

“Everyone is asking, ‘why fix something that is not broken?’” said Lotay Rinchen, co-founder of the tourism company Bridge To Bhutan, Bespoke Mindful Journeys. It “protected the travel industry and ensured a certain level of quality and business,” he said of the prior system.

Mr. Rinchen was always in favor of increasing the price of the minimum fee. But without the requirement of the package structure, he says he anticipates the Bhutan brand will be harder to sell. He has started to explore the possibility of offering luxurious products to lure in tourists willing to pay the higher costs, like chic boutique lodges, wellness retreats and upscale glamping. Previously tourists could pay extra for high-end hotels like the Taj Tashi and Le Meridien Thimphu, but many chose the basic options included in the minimum daily fee package.

“This is not the right timing. Bhutan’s economy is in bad shape, and we had expected to open up tourism and start earning hard currency again, but this price hike will keep tourists away,” said Mr. Dorji of the Bhutan Travel Club, adding that the new model could attract a demographic of older sightseeing tourists who would “skim from one luxury hotel to another, without experiencing the Bhutanese way of life.”

The prime minister said that was not the government’s intention. “We want to make sure that we get a set of tourists who are intellectually high-standing, knowledgeable and conscious of our needs and unique features,” he said.

Elsa Foster, 44, an American personal trainer who lives in Scotland, took a mountain biking tour in Bhutan with a group of friends in 2018. After a day of sightseeing in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, they embarked on a seven-day off-roading adventure, cycling through remote mountain valleys and villages. Ms. Foster said it was very practical to have hotels booked by their tour agent as they stayed in a different location each night.

“I really liked how everything was organized and packaged with the old fee system, all you had to do was show up,” she said. “But to pay 200 bucks on top of all the other expenses, you’ve got to be pretty rich and it’s a shame that Bhutan will become inaccessible to young people who won’t be able to afford it.”

The government hopes the new policy will have the opposite effect, attracting a wider demographic. “All we mean is to welcome with a very open heart all individuals and potential visitors who want to visit and experience the uniqueness we have to offer,” Dr. Tshering said. “Then we will ensure that the visitor will get the value of the money that is spent in Bhutan.”

The United States was one of the top tourism markets for the kingdom before the pandemic, behind India and Bangladesh, with 13,016 Americans visiting in 2019 and spending an average of 10 nights, according to the Tourism Council of Bhutan.

Karma Tshering, an environmental conservation and ecotourism specialist, said the government should use the increased tourism tax to meet its sustainability goals, which could include investing in hiking trails, highway amenities and training and support to service providers.

He is worried that without the minimum-spend policy, “which helps our service providers obtain minimum revenue to support their services, our people will be left in the hands of the tourists to negotiate and bring down prices,” Mr. Tshering said, adding that there could be “a chain impact on delivering quality services and high-end experiences.”

Some sectors see an opportunity in the change. Sonam Wangchuk, chairman of the Hotel & Restaurant Association of Bhutan, said the amendment was long overdue and will bring positive change where all hotels and restaurants will have equal opportunity.

“I guess it is now the survival of the fittest, where one now needs to pull up their socks and become a go-getter,” he said. “The old days of business knocking at your door are gone, therefore the harder we work the more promising it will be.”

Chencho Dema contributed reporting from Kansas City, Mo.

Credit: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/05/travel/bhutan-tourism.html

The Ultimate Guide to Hiking to the Tiger’s Nest, Bhutan

The Tiger’s Nest Monastery, also known as Paro Takstang, is one of Bhutan’s most recognized spots. Even people on the quickest of tours through Bhutan find the time to make it here. Why? Because this place is extraordinary.

The Tiger’s Nest Monastery is a small collection of buildings precariously perched on a cliff, 900 meters off of the ground. It is stunning in its beauty and location.Without a doubt, a first time trip to Bhutan would not be complete without seeing the Tiger’s Nest.

Tigers Nest Bhutan

So, if you are contemplating a trip to Bhutan (do it! It’s one of the most awesome spots in the world), keep reading to learn more about how to hike to the Tiger’s Nest, one of the coolest little spots in Bhutan.

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What is the Tiger’s Nest Monastery?

The Tiger’s Nest Monastery is a sacred Buddhist site located near Paro, Bhutan. It was constructed in 1692, around the cave where Guru Rinpoche first meditated, the event that introduced Buddhism into Bhutan. There is a legend that Guru Rinpoche was carried from Tibet to this location on the back of a tigress, thus giving it the name “Tiger’s Nest.”

Now, this monastery consists of four temples with residential accommodations for the monks. Despite the daily visits by tourists, Paro Takstang still functions as a monastery today.

Getting Here

The Tiger’s Nest Monastery is located 10 miles north of Paro (20 minutes by car), making Paro the perfect home base when making this visit. Since most people can only visit Bhutan on an organized tour, your transportation will be arranged for you.

The visit to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery takes a full day. On average, it takes between four and five hours to do the round trip hike, plus one more hour to tour the monastery. Many people also have lunch in the cafeteria not far from the monastery. Plan on leaving Paro around 8 am and arriving back at your hotel around 3 pm.

Hiking to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery

Due to its location, the only way to get to the monastery is by hiking. There are no vehicles that make the drive up to the monastery. However, for those who cannot hike the entire way, you can hire a horse to carry you most of the way there.

Facts About the Hike

  • Distance: 4 miles round trip
  • Elevation Gain: 1,700 feet
  • Highest Elevation: 10,232 feet
  • Time: Allow 5 to 7 hours for the entire visit

Getting to the Monastery

The hike starts at the bottom of the mountain, right at the car park. There will be people selling souvenirs and hiking poles and this is place to hire a horse if necessary.

Tiger's Nest Sign

Once you clear the trees that surround the parking lot, you get your first glimpse of the Tiger’s Nest. There it is, perched on the cliff, high off the valley floor. In just a matter of hours, you will be up there too.

Tigers Nest on the Cliff

The trail to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery is a wide, dirt trail. It is uphill the entire way but not overly steep. It’s very doable for most people, just be prepared to take your time.

Kara in Bhutan
Tigers Nest Trail
Bhutan Sign

The hike up to the cafeteria, which is at about the halfway point, takes most people between one and two hours.Along the way, you will pass under tons of prayer flags. Enjoy the views over the valley as you get higher. The scenery just keeps getting better.

Tigers Nest Hiking Trail

At the halfway point, the trail levels out for a little bit. Here, you can spin prayer wheels and take a break at the Takstang Cafeteria. From here, you will have a great view of the monastery. Some people choose to finish the hike here, electing not to make the final climb.

Prayer Wheel Tigers Nest
Colors of Bhutan

First Views of the Tiger’s Nest

The second half of the climb is a little easier. The trail is not as steep and gets less monotonous, especially as you near the monastery.

One of the best views of the hike is at the point where you overlook the monastery. This is where many people snap that iconic photo.

Paro Takstang

From here, it’s a short walk down a stone staircase. You cross a bridge covered in prayer flags, and then make a slightly strenuous climb up to the monastery.

Bridge with Prayer Flags
Tigers Nest Bridge

Once at the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, your guide will take you on a tour of the temples. Backpacks, photography equipment, and shoes are not allowed inside of the monastery. These will need to be left with security staff located just outside of the monastery walls.

After your tour of the Tiger’s Nest, you will hike back the way you came. Make sure you get all the photos you want…this is something you will want to look back on forever.

Earth Trekkers Bhutan
Tigers Nest Hike

How to Have the Best Experience

Best time of year to visit the Tiger’s Nest. October to December is the best time to visit Bhutan, when the weather is clear and cool. We were here in mid-October. The weather remains clear through the winter, although it can get quite cold during this time. The spring season can also be a nice time to visit Bhutan. Things begin to really heat up in May, and from June through September the monsoon arrives.

Photographing the Tiger’s Nest. The best lighting for photography is midday. While we were here in October, the monastery was in the shadow of the mountain until 11 am. Getting here early helps to avoid some of the crowds, but you will still need to wait until midday for the best photographs.

How fit do you need to be to do this hike? Anyone of average fitness can complete this hike. Take your time, it is not a race. You may want to bring hiking poles to help out your knees on the descent.

What to Bring. Hiking shoes, lots of water, a few snacks, and your camera. You can buy lunch or tea at the cafeteria.

Tiger’s Nest with Kids. When we did this hike, Tyler was 11 and Kara was 10. This was very easy for them, although we had all just hiked to Everest Base Camp two weeks prior. The trail is a slow, steady climb that most kids seven and older should be able to handle.

Courtesy: The Earth Trekkers

Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon

Bhutan, this tiny country located in the Himalaya mountains, has just recently opened its doors to tourism. As of 1974 Bhutan began to allow tourists to enter. It wasn’t until more recently when tourism really began to boom here, and tourism has now become a leading source of revenue for this country.

The Daily Tariff

Bhutan believes in offering high-quality tourism. A hefty $250 daily tariff is charged per person to visit this country. It sounds expensive, and it is on the high side, but it includes accommodations in three star hotels, a tour guide, transportation, all meals, and most activities.

What this fee does not include are flights and other transportation into or out of Bhutan, and anything extra, such as snacks, alcoholic beverages, and certain activities.

You are able to travel in small groups and make your own itinerary.

You are not forced onto gigantic tour buses for sightseeing with twenty-five other people.

So, if you multiply the $250 tariff by four (for our family), $1000 is quite an expensive fee. Fortunately for us, children under the age of 12 are half price. Our daily fee of $750 is crushing our daily budget expenditure!!!

But I had read that Bhutan is amazing, we were already so close to it, just having been in Nepal, so we scheduled a week in Bhutan, hoping it would live up to our expectations. Our week has just ended and I can tell you that Bhutan is incredible. This has been one of the best weeks of our trip so far…and that is saying a lot!

Bhutan Flag

Bridge to Bhutan

The tour company we used is Bridge to Bhutan (click here to visit their website). We found them through Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor. Lotay and Fin, the founders of Bridge to Bhutan, helped us plan our itinerary and pick out great hotels during our stay in Bhutan. We felt like they really had our best interests in mind and did everything they could to make our week as enjoyable as possible.

I am hoping we can one day return to Bhutan, and when we do we will not hesitate to use Bridge to Bhutan again. Our experience was amazing.

Continue reading Bhutan, Land of the Thunder Dragon

Big lessons on climate change from a small country

Landscape of terrace fields and homes in Bhutan. Credits: Curt Carnemark / World Bank
Landscape of terrace fields and homes in Bhutan. Credits: Curt Carnemark / World Bank

The mountain kingdom of Bhutan may not seem an obvious place to look for lessons on addressing climate change. But on a recent visit I was impressed with how much this small country has achieved and also with its ambition. Bhutan has much to teach South Asia and the wider world. These lessons are especially relevant as the world negotiates in Paris a new pact on climate change at the International Climate Change Summit, known as COP21, which we all hope will eventually move the global economy to a low carbon and more resilient path. Continue reading Big lessons on climate change from a small country

Bhutan rejoices over birth of crown prince

The King and Queen of Bhutan have released the first official picture of their baby son who was born last Friday.

In an image posted to Facebook, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, 35, and Queen Jetsun Pema, 25, can be seen gazing adoringly at the new arrival who is swaddled in a vibrant yellow blanket as they sit in the grounds of Lingkana Palace in the Bhtanese capital Thimphu.

But it was the King’s father, who is known as His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo, who was given the honour of holding the new baby as he was officially introduced to the world.

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King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, 35, (left) and Queen Jetsun Pema, 25, of Bhutan gaze adoringly at their newborn son in the grounds of Lingkana Palace in the Bhutanese capital Thimphu. The baby’s grandfather, the former King of Bhutan (centre) was given the honour of holding the baby whose name has not yet been revealed

The former King of Bhutan cradled the baby – whose name has not yet been announced – in the crook of his right arm, while placing an affectionate hand around his daughter-in-law’s shoulder. Continue reading Bhutan rejoices over birth of crown prince

William and Kate to visit Bhutan in spring, Palace says

  • This will be the first time the royal couple have visited Bhutan
  • Country nestles high in the Himalayas between India and China
  • Kate and William, both 33, will visit King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck
  • His pregnant wife Jetsun Pema, 25, is due to give birth in Spring
  • Bhutan is a Buddhist country that measures wealth on happiness
  • Prince Charles and Prince Andrew have both visited country previously

She is known as the Dragon Queen and the most glamorous woman in the Orient.

He has been dubbed The Prince Charming of the Himalayas, a ruler with the populist touch who is known to invite his subjects into his home for tea and a chat.

And this spring the young King and Queen of Bhutan, dubbed the ‘William and Kate of the Orient’, will host the real Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on an official visit on behalf of the British Government.

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The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge will be leaving their children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, at home later this year as they make an official visit to Bhutan and India this spring

The hugely-anticipated visit will coincide with the couple’s previously announced tour of India and is likely to take place in April. Continue reading William and Kate to visit Bhutan in spring, Palace says

U.N. Happiness Conference in NYC April 02, 2012: Agenda

REALISING THE WORLD WE ALL WANT: LAUNCH EVENT

HIGH-LEVEL MEETING ON WELLBEING AND HAPPINESS: DEFINING A NEW ECONOMIC PARADIGM

Hosted by the Royal Government of Bhutan, 2nd April 2012, Conference Room 1 (North Lawn Building), United Nations Headquarters, New York City

DRAFT AGENDA

Saturday, 31st March & Sunday, 1st April 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. – Registration at the Permanent Mission of Bhutan, 343 East 43rd Street, New York

Monday, 2nd April 8 – 8.40 a.m. – Security Check at the UN Visitor’s Gate (First Avenue, 45 – 46 Street) and

Registration 8 – 8.40 a.m. – Registration at Conference Room 1 for delegates of Member States

8.50 a.m. – All participants to be seated in Conference Room 1

9 –10.00 a.m. – Inaugural Session Chair: H.E. Helen Clark, Administrator, United Nations Development Programme and the Former Prime Minister of New Zealand

9.00 – 9.03 a.m. – Welcome address by H.E. Helen Clark                                                                                                                                       9.03 – 9.09 a.m. – Address by H.E. Mr. Jigmi Y. Thinley, Prime Minister of Bhutan (On the mission and purpose of the meeting) 9.09 – 9.12 a.m. – Inaugural address by H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations                                         9.12 – 9.15 a.m. – Address by H.E. Mr. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, President of the 66th Session of the UN General Assembly 9.15 – 9.18 a.m. – Address by H.E. Mr. Miloš Koterec, President of the Economic and Social Council                                                   9.18 – 9.28 a.m. – Keynote address by H.E. Ms. Laura Chinchilla, Honourable President of the Republic of Costa Rica (The Republic of Costa Rica is universally recognised for its outstanding achievements in environmental conservation and its exemplary sustainable development record) …For more refer www.2apr.gov.bt

Bhutan to host the U.N. Happiness Conference April 2-5, 2012 in NYC

The U.N. Happiness Project By TIMOTHY W. RYBACK* (NY Times)

March 28, 2012 : Next Monday, the United Nations will implement Resolution 65/309, adopted unanimously by the General Assembly in July 2011, placing “happiness” on the global agenda. “Conscious that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal” and “recognizing that the gross domestic product […] does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people,” Resolution 65/309 empowers the Kingdom of Bhutan to convene a high-level meeting on happiness as part of next week’s 66th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. An impressive array of luminaries will be speaking for this remote Himalayan kingdom. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales will open the meeting via a prerecorded video missive. The Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz will speak on “happiness indicators,” as will the economist Jeffrey Sachs. The Bhutanese prime minister will represent King Jigme Khesar Namgyel, the reigning Dragon King of the Bhutanese House of Wangchuck. (The kingdom became a constitutional monarchy in 2007.) For the 32-year-old Dragon King — Bhutan means “land of dragons” in the local Dzongkha language — U.N. Resolution 65/309 represents a global public relations triumph and the realization of a hereditary ambition, initiated by his grandfather 40 years ago, to establish Gross National Happiness (G.N.H.) as an alternate model to Gross National Product (G.N.P.) as a measure of national progress. Continue reading Bhutan to host the U.N. Happiness Conference April 2-5, 2012 in NYC

The elusive Snow Leopard caught on camera

Courtesy:  The Ministry of Agriculture & Forests, Bhutan , WWF and Kuensel newspaper

The elusive Snow Leopard caught on camera (You tube video)

Snow leopards disappearing?

The cats’ coming into conflict with humans is the main threat to its population in Bhutan
A preliminary snow leopard prey survey conducted recently at the Wangchuck Centennial Park using camera traps revealed several footages of snow leopards and its prey.Watch another video
The study, worth Nu 2M, World Wildlife Fund officials said would focus on the snow leopard population and their places of existence to help prioritise the best areas for conservation. Continue reading The elusive Snow Leopard caught on camera

Featured Web/Blog: Introduction to Bhutan – Unbelievable Photographs!

Bhutan.  This little-known Himalayan kingdom, nestled between the giants of India and China, is the world’s last remaining Shangri-La.  This is an extraordinary country, unlike any on Earth, where traffic lights do not exist, buying cigarettes is illegal, the wrestling channel and MTV are banned, as well as Western-style billboards and plastic bags, and Gross National Happiness has been deemed more important than Gross National Product.  While neighboring countries have catapulted themselves into the modern world and embraced tourism with such ferocity that their cultures have been both compromised and neglected, Bhutan has recognized that the only way to move forward and ensure both its survival and sovereignty is to protect the unique culture and environment that makes the country so special.

Up until 1960, Bhutan had been visited by only a handful of early British explorers and during the decade that followed the few foreigners permitted into the country were guests of the royal family.  It was not until the coronation of the fourth king in 1974 that a hotel was built and the first group of paying tourists arrived, organized and led by Lars Eric Lindbald (founder of Linbald Travel) who encouraged the government to limit tourism and to charge high fees.  This set the standard by which tourism would evolve in Bhutan and small groups began to enter the country, permitted only to visit the dzongs and goempas in Paro and Thimpu. Continue reading Featured Web/Blog: Introduction to Bhutan – Unbelievable Photographs!