While the final work on the new Tourism Levy for 2022 is being completed, the biggest change that affects tourists around the world is the increase in the government excise of $200US per person per day. This ONE change signals an end to travel to Bhutan for many people. Simply put, with this new minimum daily cost added to all other costs including transportation, housing, food, and flights into Bhutan will bring daily costs in excess of $400US per day for a minimum package. That daily rate is very expensive compared to many Asian countries and make travel to Bhutan for my school groups practically impossible.
The desire to change the excise tax on tourists into Bhutan has a long history. For years the rate has been $65US per day for all travelers making the minimum daily costs roughly $200 in the low season, $250US in the high season for adults. Additional changes over the years have added $10US to $15/day as the needs of the country have changed. This most recent change practically doubles the cost of travel in Bhutan.
As the leader of school groups that have traveled to Bhutan since 2010, the changes will result in an end to group travel to Bhutan. To make this clear, from the United States, travel to Bangkok, the main launching point for a Bhutanese tour, costs roughly $1200 – $1500US RT from my location. Add to those costs nights stay in Bangkok, RT flights into Paro, a typical ten day trip in Bhutan, and various other costs in the country, the total price of travel to Bhutan would exceed $7000. Even for relatively wealthy US students, the costs for a school trip to Bhutan are unsustainable.
In our case, we will reorient our trips to East Asia to Thailand, India, South Korea, and Japan. To put the difference in costs into some perspective, a school trip before COVID to Japan for twelve days including all transportation, lodging, and food was $3800US per person.
As someone who has traveled to Bhutan many times and really has fallen in love with the people, the country, and the experiences, it’s hard to imagine that we cannot reasonably travel to the country in the future. While I understand the desire to improve the services, infrastructure, and the quality of the lives of people in Bhutan, I am not sure increasing the excise tax into the country makes sense in the short term. Maybe there are thousands of people who are both willing and able to visit Bhutan as a kind of exclusive experience for the very wealthy. I honestly and sincerely hope that the country will benefit from the changes to tourism in the coming years and that this new policy will demonstrate the wisdom of those who fashioned it. As it stands, our small school and community will not have the chance to see those changes first hand and maybe that is as it should be. Tourism is, in and of itself, a complicated and fraught system for Western travelers and for those people who encounter our groups. If nothing else, my hope is that Bhutan thrives even if I cannot be witness to that change. My concern is that these changes will reduce tourism and a stream of income for the Nation. Only time will tell.