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While reading an article about Bhutan today, I came across this surprising bit:

However, visiting the country for Australians is not straightforward. While there are connecting flights from Drukair via Singapore and Bangkok, visitors need to book their trip with a licensed Bhutanese tour agency or one of its international partners. They must also spend a minimum $US200 ($A258) per day while in the country (including accommodation and a daily $US65 tourism fee).

Seriously? Does this apply equally to all visitors, or just Australians, and is there really no way around this? Or is it simple a tourism operator tax, passed on to the tourists?

  • Just reading ‘minimal daily spend’, I was reminded of the former GDR and its requirement of every FRG German to exchange a fixed amount of money when entering. (Spoilers: That was much more than you needed for a day trip.) – Jan Sep 25 '16 at 20:28
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Yes, seriously, although the US$65 "royalty" is actually included in the US$200 "daily package fee". However, that's the group rate (3 or more people), you get socked another $40/30 per person if you're traveling solo/duo, and another $50/night/person if you're visiting when it's neither midwinter nor monsoon (March-May, Sep-Nov).

Bhutan explicitly wants cashed-up tourists and not penurious backpackers, so the rates are high. The only exceptions/discounts are:

  • Citizens of India, Bangladesh and the Maldives, who don't need visas
  • Young children: no royalty under 5, 50% off under 12
  • Students: 25% off

The alternative is to wrangle an invitation from a Bhutanese citizen or organization, but obviously this requires actually knowing someone, there's no Russia-style invitation letter mill. Volunteering is one way in, but the competition's pretty tough.

  • 2
    Yeah, the quote did say the $200 includes the $65 tourism fee ;) Still amazing though, purposefully excluding backpackers, to some extent :/ – Mark Mayo Feb 17 '15 at 23:14
  • Good answer for including that there are other ways into Bhutan than through a tour operator. For example a friend of mine spent time there teaching in a monastery at the invitation of the Rinpoche who organised the visa. Absolutely not for the random tourist of course but accuracy is important, hence +1. – Francis Davey Feb 19 '15 at 9:32
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I went there solo for 5 days in 2007, as part of a backpacking trip, and it's like this:

  1. You contact a tour agent ("operator") and explain that you just want to see the sights for N days. (Many of their tourists hire porters for serious mountaineering.) You will be quoted the minimum rate of $200/day or whatever.

    If the rate is different or the reply isn't prompt, try a different agent. His job is simple: hire the guide and driver, file the paperwork. In my case, the operator did not seem to own or "operate" anything, nor make concrete itinerary plans.

  2. You wire the money to the agent up front. You're not in the country yet!

  3. You should be placed in contact with the actual guide. Now is the time to finalize the itinerary.

  4. Buy the obligatory one ticket on Druk Air or Bhutan Airlines. If you like Bhutan, you'll probably like the nearby parts of India, so it's sort of pointless to fly both ways, unless perhaps you have very specific plans.

  5. Go there and enjoy the trip. The quoted rate covers all travel expenses, lodging, and food.

    The only expense after the down payment is souvenirs, and anything you might do without the guide.

Unlike the rest of South Asia, there are no "tourist markets" for overpriced souvenirs. Actually, aside from one store in Thimpu, there was no souvenir shop at all. There was not one ATM in the country as of 2007.

Outside the (small) cities, the accommodations will be modest, because there are no hotels or proper restaurants. (There's still plenty of hospitality, of course.) So, there's no reason the rate would go up, unless you ask to spend the whole time in proper, urban hotels. But what tourist wants that?

I bought a small tapestry, some silver jewelry, and a few trinkets. The guide brought me to the market for the sake of getting any essentials I might need, not souvenirs. He was a little bemused about my excitement to buy random, ordinary things. (Bhutanese lawn darts!)

I bought a Gho before entering Bhutan, just across the Indian border. The guide said it was the better deal. At about US$70 (top of the line), that alone probably cost as much as everything else combined.


Once you're there, you'll see the reason for the policy. There are very few foreigners there, especially backpackers. The Bhutanese people are very curious and interested in other cultures, but they're also vulnerable and impressionable. The government is rightly cautious and even suspicious.

For the price of a fancy hotel, you get the run of the country and you'll never think about money once you're there. Once you cough up the flat rate, it's actually a backpacker's paradise.

  • You say you need to buy a ticket on Druk Air. Actually you don't, as there's a second, cheaper airline: Tashi Air. When I flew, Tashi really only had a single route, Bangkok to Kolkata to Paro, but Kolkata is easy to get to. – Richard Smith Sep 23 '16 at 23:12
  • @RichardSmith Thanks, that's new since I was there. Wikipedia lists far more routes than what I recall from 2007. They seem to suggest that both airlines are government-subsidized, using artificial competition to combat complacency. I went over land from Kolkata to Darjeeling to Bhutan, which was a lot of fun. – Exitvisa Sep 25 '16 at 8:32
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For starters it is not a "minimum spend", rather it is the base rate per day for tours. It covers your government taxes, accommodation, three meals, guide services and transport. If you are doing some more specialized like white water rafting, climbing, etc there is a supplement. If you are wanting to stay in upscale hotels there is a supplement.

The only way to visit Bhutan is on a package organized through a Bhutanese tour company or through an international tour operator who has an agreement with a Bhutanese tour company. Independent travel is not allowed.

Bhutan, unlike Nepal who threw open their doors without controls, has been cautious in opening up to the world. They are controlling development to maintain thier identity and culture, They are using the higher fees we tourists pay to improve their country's infrastructure. They are limiting the numbers who visit.

Tourism is one of Bhutan's biggest foreign currency earners after electricity, one could almost call it their only other source of foreign currency.

While the costs can be high for budget travelers, I think Bhutan has done well with their approach. Having watched places like Kathmandu de-evolve due to over development and increasing numbers of tourists, I would hate to see the last Himalayan kingdom fall to the same mistakes.

  • 4
    It is actually a kind of minimum spend. You have to wire them the money, so you are going to spend that much money minimum. I'm probably the one closest to Bhutan (writing this in a hotel room in Bodh Gaya). I would rather try to be friend with a Bhutan (many Bhutan Buddhists come here) and try to get around this, but hotels are actually expensive, so you are going to spend that much money either way. – Ayesh K Feb 17 '15 at 17:48
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    Minimum spend implies that what you spend in the country counts towards the total. This is not the case. Bhutan fees are paid in advance for a tour package. What you pay in the country after you arrive counts for nothing. And not sure what being closer to Bhutan has to do with it. I have been running tours to Bhutan for 11 years, so likely have at least an equal level of knowledge. – user13044 Feb 18 '15 at 1:01
  • Sorry I didn't mean you have no experience in this. I'm far behind in this. There are many Bhutan people here, so becoming a friend is easy. $200/day is way beyond my budget so I was trying to work it around, which seems not going to work. – Ayesh K Feb 18 '15 at 7:25
  • While it is a minimum spend, so you have to spend that much, it's quite easy to spend precisely that and no more once you're in the country. The package with the tour operator will cover three meals a day, entry into museums, and a tour guide and driver. The only thing I spent money on was an occasional beer (alcoholic drinks are not included), and a few presents for people back home. I could easily have gone without either. – Richard Smith Sep 23 '16 at 23:06
  • I keep getting spam aimed at Indian citizens offering Bhutan tours for around $50 USD per night so I'm not sure this development control isn't just a profit maximizing strategy. 9500-16900 rupees for 3/4 nights. If the place is overflowing with Indian tourists that may turn the rest of us off a bit. – Spehro Pefhany Sep 18 '17 at 12:36
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Unless you're an Indian, Bangladeshi or Maldivian citizen, you are unable to enter Bhutan without going through a Bhutanese tour agent - either directly or via a tour agent in your own country. You will not receive a visa otherwise.

These tour agents are the ones that effectively "ensure" that you will meet the minimum spend as per Bhutanese tourist rules.

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