Bhutan introduces ‘sustainable development fee’ for regional tourists

NEW DELHI: Ending decades of free entry to regional tourists visiting Bhutan, the government has decided to levy a daily US$17 (RM70 fee for regional tourists from India, the Maldives and Bangladesh, beginning this July.

Bhutan is introducing the “sustainable development fee” following a spike in visitors that has sparked worries for the unique Himalayan kingdom’s cherished ecology.

The majority of tourists already cough up US$250 per day in high season — including meals, transport, and accommodation — to visit the country of 750,000 people famous for putting happiness before economic growth and being carbon negative.

According to the Times of India, this “high value, low impact” strategy has come under strain in recent years because of a sharp rise in visitors from India – who are exempt from the levy.

In 2018, Bhutan received 200,000 visitors from countries in the region, up nearly 10 per cent from 2017, sparking fears that it was becoming just another mass tourism destination.

The Hindu daily said the SDF was still considerably lower compared to the US$250 (RM1,030 charged to other tourists.

Indians mainly travel to the more developed western region of Bhutan.

In a move to promote tourism in Bhutan’s eastern region as well, the government has decided to drop SDF charges for tourists visiting 11 of 20 total districts that fall in the east.

Bhutan’s Tourism Council Director Dorji Dhradul said the idea of the SDF was to provide better facilities for regional tourists.

“The levy of SDF to regional tourists will help in ensuring an exclusive experience to all tourists which is the intent of our tourism policy of high value, low volume,” he told The Hindu.

However, regional tour operators have expressed concerns that the SDF will have dampening effect on numbers.

A senior Indian official said the Indian government has asked the Bhutanese government to make an effort to publicise the new rules in India before they come into effect.

New Delhi’s hesitation comes as the new SDF, while a seemingly small amount compared to the fees charged to other nationalities, could be seen as a way of making Indian tourists feel unwelcome.

In the past year, Bhutanese newspapers have often complained about Indian tourists who don’t pay heed to local customs and picnickers who litter the country’s pristine environment.

In 2018, of the 274,000 tourists visiting Bhutan, the council estimated that about 200,000 were from the region, of which about 180,000 were from India.