One year after hiking its ‘sustainable development fee’ to US$200 per person, per night, Bhutan has decided to halve it to attract more visitors. Jenny Southan reports

In a move to revitalise Bhutan’s tourism sector and celebrate its 50th anniversary of welcoming foreign visitors in 2024, the Royal Government of Bhutan has announced a 50 per cent reduction in its daily Sustainable Development Fee (SDF).

The new fee will be US$100 per person, per night, down from the previous US$200, effective from September 1, 2023, until August 31, 2027. The announcement came as the Himalayan kingdom seeks to relax its unique “High Value, Low Volume” tourism policy amid on-going global challenges including the Covid-19 pandemic and geopolitical conflicts.

Children between the ages of six and 12 will also enjoy a 50 per cent discount, with the fee reduced to US$50 per person per night. Additionally, children under six years old are exempt from the SDF altogether. The existing 24-hour SDF waiver for tourists staying in border towns will continue.

The reduced SDF is part of a series of new incentives aimed to encourage more travellers to visit the Kingdom (for about a year it seemed to want to keep most people out by charging US$1,400 per person for a one-week stay).

Director general of the Department of Tourism Bhutan, Dorji Dhradhul, expressed optimism about the revised policy. He said: “We have listened to the voices of our valued guests, as well as our colleagues in the industry and our global travel partners. As a result, we have taken the decision to temporarily lower our Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) with the aim of revitalizing our tourism sector.

“Similar to our nation itself, our approach to our tourism policy stands out for its uniqueness. We acknowledge the necessity of embracing change and occasionally refining both our policies and strategies to better match prevailing market conditions. The lower SDF represents a great opportunity for more people to visit our beautiful kingdom in the future, which will benefit our people as well as the many projects that are funded by the SDF.”

Bhutan’s tourism sector plays an essential role in the country’s economy, contributing to employment and growth. Funds collected from the SDF support a range of national initiatives, including free healthcare and education for all Bhutanese citizens. These funds also contribute to various sustainability and conservation projects, cultural preservation programs, infrastructure improvements, and youth development initiatives.

Since January 2023, Bhutan has welcomed nearly 60,000 tourists, meeting its forecasted arrivals for the year. The country anticipates that the tourism numbers will return to pre-pandemic levels by 2025. Major markets for Bhutanese tourism include India, the US, the UK, Australia, Germany, Malaysia, France, Singapore, Vietnam, and China.

For those interested in visiting Bhutan, SDF fees are paid at the time of visa application, which can be processed on the Department of Tourism’s official website. The government will also conduct periodic assessments to determine the ongoing viability of these new incentives.

The projects funded by the SDF include the provision of free healthcare and education for all Bhutanese; a range of sustainability and conservation projects; cultural preservation programmes; infrastructure upgrades; and youth development programmes.

Meanwhile, elite educational travel company the Luminaire has designed a new nine-day trip that will be guided by the pioneers of the environmental initiatives that maintain Bhutan as the world’s first carbon-negative country.

Many of the experiences have never been offered by travel companies before. Options include joining Bhutanese researcher Dr Tiger Sangay in monitoring camera traps tracking the movements of Bengal Tigers, to research hiking through the Phobjika Vallery with one of Bhutan’s most influential naturalists Dr Sherub Sherub. Additional experiences include:

  • A private dinner with expert environmentalist, considered amongst Bhutanese communities as the “Godfather of Conservation”, Dashjo Benji. Founder of Bhutan’s Royal Society for the Protection of Nation, Benji is the leading expert on the Kingdom’s renowned black-necked cranes.
  • Descending into the fertile valley of Punakha to the Mo Chhu (Mother River) to explore it by raft.
  • Visiting UNESCO-protected Boudhanath Stupa – the largest spherical stupa in Nepal.
  • Sustainably foraging for wild edible orchards with expert eco-farmer Sangay Rinchen.
  • Private farm-to-fork dinner at Krishnarpan restaurant sourced from Dwakira’s organic farms.
  • Guided forestry exploration with tree planter, Sonam Phuntsho, discovering the country’s carbon-negative status.

Guests will stay at a series of luxury lodges with strong sustainability credentials, carefully selected to offer complete sanctuary, including the Dwarika’s Hotel Kathmandu, Six Senses Thimphu, Gangtey Lodge, Punakha River Lodge and Uma Paro.

Pricing starts from £16,990 per person based on two travellers and includes all accommodation, activities, transfers and some meals. This exclusive journey is available on a private basis.