How to book a trip to Bhutan: everything you need to know
Bhutan has a reputation as an exclusive, remote destination that only opens up its doors to a lucky, well-heeled few. Because of its unique tourist rules, arranging a trip to Bhutan entails jumping through a few hoops. If you do decide to take the plunge, this is your how-to guide.
Bhutan’s tourism mantra is 'high value, low impact' and its aim is simple: to maximize the financial benefits of tourism, while minimizing its environmental and cultural impact. It’s a perfect example of the country’s guiding policy of ‘Gross National Happiness’.
What this means for foreign tourists is you will have to pay a minimum of US$250 per day for an organized trip in order to get a visa. Console yourself with the knowledge that $65 of this amount goes to the government as a Sustainable Development Fee to be spent on free education and healthcare for Bhutan’s citizens.
But beyond this daily tariff, things are pretty flexible. You don’t need to visit in a group (the most common ‘group’ size is two people) and there is no limit on visitor numbers, which have surged in recent years to 270,000 per year.
The main exception to the tariff rule is Indian tourists, who face no daily minimum rate. With Indian tourists now dwarfing any other nationality by a factor of almost 20, it’s becoming increasingly hard for Bhutan to justify its tariff system.
Before you start planning
In order to qualify for a visa you must arrange your travels through a registered Bhutanese travel agent. There are dozens of these listed on the website of the Tourism Council of Bhutan. You must travel on a pre-agreed itinerary, with a guide. It is absolutely possible to visit monasteries or temples not listed on your initial itinerary but your overnight stops and entry and exit dates have to be fixed at this point.
How much does a trip to Bhutan cost?
Regardless of whether you are on a tour or a trek, the cost of your trip to Bhutan is fixed by the government as a daily tariff of US$250 per person per night's stay in the high and shoulder seasons. This rate drops to $200 in the low winter season (December to February) and the monsoon months (June to August). Groups of one/two people pay an additional surcharge of $40/30 per person. Children up to five years old travel free, while those aged six to 12 years pay only 50% of the daily tariff. Unless you are a resident of Bhutan or an accredited travel agency, there’s no way around this. Because of the fixed daily tariff, there's little difference in price between agencies.
The costs seem steep at first, but when you factor in what that gets you – three-star accommodation, food, private transport (not flights), guides, entry fees, permits, a fully organised trek etc – it's actually not a bad deal.
Plan Your Itinerary
Although you have to arrange your trip through an agency, you are totally free to customise your holiday. Most people use an agency’s itinerary as a starting point and then modify it to their interests. To help, here's your guide to arranging a Bhutan itinerary. It’s always worth throwing in a couple of lesser-visited temples and day hikes to get you off the tourist circuit. Try also to arrange your itinerary around one of Bhutan’s fabulous festivals.
As you hammer out things to do in Bhutan, this is the time to mention any extras, such as a hot-stone bath, a homestay or a day’s mountain biking, to determine if any extra fee is involved. Normally your agency chooses your accommodation for you, but if you have a particular place in mind you can request this, as long as it falls into the three-star tourist category. For luxury hotels you’ll have to pay a supplement.
If you are flying into Bhutan (most commonly from Delhi, Bangkok or Kathmandu) your agency will offer to buy your ticket for you, which is convenient, though you can also buy tickets online through the website of the national airline Druk Air.
Paying for your tour
Once you’ve agreed your itinerary and the price, the next step is to make the payment and this is the most logistically tricky part of the tour process. Your agency will send bank details and you will have to wire the full amount to them, via an account at the Bank of Bhutan. You will have to patiently explain to your local bank that the wire is going to a Bhutan National Bank (BNB) account, but routing via a Standard Chartered Bank account. The ‘beneficiary account’ is your agency’s account inside the Bhutan National Bank account. If you are lucky this will only involve one visit to your bank; be prepared to explain what ‘Bhutan’ is.
The main advantage of booking through a foreign tour company is that you don’t have to mess about with this international transfer, though you will ultimately pay more this way.
Getting a Bhutan Visa
Once the wire has gone through, your agency will confirm the arrival of funds and will apply for your visa, so you will need to fill out a form and send a digital photograph and scan of your passport photo page. Getting a visa is just a formality and the agency will email you a copy of your visa authorisation after a few days. The visa costs US$40 and will have been included in your tour price.
It’s important to print out a copy of your visa, as you will need it to check in to your flight to Paro. On arrival at Paro airport, or the land border with India, you simply present this visa authorisation and the immigration stamps the visa into your passport. It’s actually a very easy and straightforward process.
In general, try to budget at least a month to pin down your itinerary, make the payment and get your visa approval. If you are visiting in the high season months of October, November, March and April you will want to book your flights further in advance.
All in all, it’s not a difficult process. The feeling of getting that visa stamp in your passport and finally walking out of the terminal into exotic Bhutan will make it all worthwhile. The best things in life have to be earned.
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