Many are waiting

Dechen Dolkar 

Amid fears that tourists would find Bhutan expensive because of the new sustainable development fee of USD 200 a day, 27 tourists have confirmed to visit Bhutan as of yesterday.

Nine tourists are in the country, three are yet to come and 15 tourists already left. The first tourist paying USD 200 per day arrived in the country on July 13, according to the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB).

The tourists made their bookings after June 20 this year. TCB has announced that if tourists confirm their visits before or on June 20, they could pay the old SDF, but they should visit Bhutan within December 2023.

Similarly, 46 regional tourists have also been confirmed to visit Bhutan after paying the SDF of Nu 1,200 a day. Of the total, 19 are in the country, 22 left the country and five are yet to visit Bhutan.

According to TCB officials, all tourists are supposed to come through tour operators until September 22 this year, even if they have paid the fee of USD 200.

Tour operators denied sharing how much they charged tourists. However, most of the tour operators were able to get only a few tourists who booked their visit before the revised SDF rates.

MyBhutan, a tour operator, received a tourist from Singapore on July 15. The tourist came for a month-long religious retreat. 

The agent said that tourists used to visit Bhutan twice a year before the pandemic for retreats and holidays. 

According to the agent, the tour was sold at USD 450 per day, inclusive of hotel, guide, meals and transportation. The tourist travelled as far as Trashigang. This means the agent can keep USD 250 a day after paying the USD 200 SDF a day.

The agent said that they also charge service fees since they provide high-end services to tourists. “Our clients are also high-end.  We pay our guides Nu 2,000 a day.”

The tour operators also claimed that it is a very long process to get tourists in the country in the new system. Tour operators were asked to submit travel insurance, Covid-19 undertaking letter, air ticket and vaccination certificate of the tourists to TCB. 

Another tourist from Singapore arrived on August 6 for a two-week vacation. The agent said that their cost was  reasonable since they have their own hotels and vehicles. 

A tourist from Singapore, Yu Song, said that services are good. “At the arrival hall at the airport, I was guided by volunteers to do the RT-PCR test and could come out smoothly in a short period of time,” Yu Song said.

Yu Song said that the trip is well organised and the services provided are as expected. The food are delicious and the guide is experienced.

It was learnt that many tourists have confirmed their booking under both the new and old SDF. However, tour operators are worried about the shortage of three-star hotels in dzongkhags outside Paro and Thimphu. Currently, most of the three-star hotels are not ready to open and are under renovation. 

The tour operator said that they might have to keep tourists at five and four-star hotels and some are fearing it could cut into their profits. “These hotels charge more than USD 200 a night.”

Some tour operators said that they could sell packages for USD 350 to make a decent living. “We have to play around with USD 150 after paying USD 200 in SDF,” said one.  “This could compromise the rates we pay to hotels and guides as we have to make the most of the little we earn.”

Specialised tours like birding and trekking are waiting to see how the new SDF would affect them. “We could sell for USD 350 and save from lodging costs, as birders need not stay in luxury hotels. But bird watching takes many days and the daily SDF could discourage such tourists,” he said.