Much to the satisfaction and happiness of those in the tourism and allied businesses, 2024 started on a good note, with tourist arrivals almost doubling in the first quarter. Figures shared show that April alone received nearly as many tourists as in the first three months of 2023.

While who brought in the tourists depends on a lot of factors including the agent’s network,  marketing strategies and commissions offered, the numbers are huge. Those in the business say a group of four tourists spending a week in Bhutan at the old SDF of USD 65 could see them through a year. This year those in the business are all smiles, with one tour agent bringing in 70 tourists in April alone.

The arrivals resulted in a revenue of USD13 million from the revised sustainable development fee. Although it is not specified in the report, we can safely surmise and agents agree that the 50 percent reduction in the SDF for dollar-paying has resulted in the record numbers.  It is still the tourist season in Bhutan.  In fact, it is said that there is no off-season in Bhutan, meaning tourists visit all through the year.

What is consistently noticeable  in the arrivals is the share from neighbouring India. About 58 percent or 13,925 tourists were from India alone. This is a significant shift and a welcome one considering the changes in policies. The SDF of Nu 1,200 per day per tourist from India, Nu 4,500 fee for vehicles or bikers, many thought would close the tap. In fact, the revised fee has made Bhutan an exclusive destination for many Indians.

The number will keep increasing as there is a burgeoning upper and middle class Indians with huge disposable income. Lest we forget, there are thousands of tourists from India staying in the seven-star hotels paying more than USD1,000 a day.

This could be also down to the initiatives of the past government and tour agents both from India and Bhutan, who  immediately after the border opening, started looking for solutions to improve tourism.  A group of tour operators last spring took initiatives to committed to promote Bhutan as a quality tourism destination by bringing quality tourists.  They appreciated the policy and wanted to help Bhutan fulfill the policy of high-value, low-volume tourism. It seems, it worked.

While the increase in visitors is encouraging even with the revised SDF, what can Bhutan offer to attract more conscious tourists who respect the sustainable development  policies of the country?

Going by reports in the Indian media, the online travel agency MakeMyTrip has announced a new exclusive charter service between Mumbai and Bhutan. This service is part of its holiday packages. If we are among the five most-searched emerging destinations, with a year-on-year increase of more than 200 percent, the numbers could increase. The initiatives are not only for marketing. It is to fill the gap of services. For instance, the airfare, many say is expensive, to the extent that chartering one, perhaps is more reasonable. The other services that raise eyebrows are the cost of simple essential services like a tourist SIM card, and clean public toilets.