Our experience with tourism since the Covid-19 pandemic can be likened to a chilip (tourist) with an upset stomach, delighting in close encounters with Blood pheasant at Thrumshingla, between Bumthang and Mongar.

Throughout this tumultuous period, all stakeholders in the industry nearly dismantled the walls of reform in pursuit of business. The vision was clear – tiny Bhutan aspired to be an exclusive destination, restricting mass tourism and promoting high-value tourism. The greed of money didn’t allow it. We realized it after the Covid pandemic. With much risk, the tariff was revised. In the form of a sustainable development fee, visiting Bhutan became expensive.

Numbers alone were not good even if they benefited tour agents, hotels and allied businesses. Small Bhutan without infrastructure couldn’t let tourists experience the hype we created. Tourists started complaining of seeing too many of themselves at the same spot. Something had to be done. The only way to restrict was through revising fees even if against the will or want of many.

Besides all the drama, Bhutan recorded its record revenue from the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) last year, amounting to around USD 26 million. The country received more than 103,000 tourists, exceeding the projected tourism arrival target. The revenue earned last year exceeded pre-pandemic and SDF revision visit years.

These figures underscore the effectiveness of our reforms. If we advocate for evidence-based decision-making, this serves as a promising start. Given time to resonate with visitors and industry insiders, these reforms will benefit both our nation and those seeking unique experiences. Our aim through these reforms isn’t to stifle tourism or obliterate business opportunities but to boldly position Bhutan as an exclusive destination by discouraging mass tourism.

To remind ourselves, we have not reduced the SDF from USD 200 to 100. It is, as of now, a promotional rate and remains effective until August 2027 if it is not changed. What’s imperative is periodic evaluations to inform further policy adjustments. Policies will inevitably evolve with changing circumstances. However, the unwavering commitment to the High-Value Low-Volume policy, conceived decades ago upon opening our doors to tourism, remains steadfast.

The target this year is 300,000 tourists, nearly half the population of the country. If they are all SDF-paying visitors, it is a good sign that although expensive, Bhutan remains a favourite tourist destination. We can attend to 300,000 tourists.

Meanwhile, what we can decide is on regional tourists visiting our border towns. Letting in our friends from the bordering towns of Guwahati, Siliguri, or as far as Kalimpong or Darjeeling without the SDF could be a good option. Samdrupjongkhar is a ghost town according to hoteliers. What matters for them is visitors from Assam and Bengal and not the dollar-paying tourists. The wish that SDF could be waived for them to visit the bordering towns makes sense. The SDF can be levied to tourists crossing beyond Dewathang in Samdrupjongkhar, Rinchending in Phuentsholing or Sarpang in Gelephu.