Why Bhutan’s Insanely High Tourist Fee Is A Good Thing

Filed Under: Travel

I’ve spent the past several days in Bhutan, and can’t begin to say how magical I find this country to be. From the friendly people to the clean air to the incredible natural beauty to the peaceful vibe, it’s a unique place. I don’t necessarily want to claim it’s my favorite place ever, though it’s one-of-a-kind for sure. I’ve never been anywhere like Bhutan.


When I first considered booking a trip to Bhutan, I had second thoughts:

  • Bhutan is difficult to get to, as there are only a couple of airlines that fly there, they don’t belong to alliances, and tickets are quite expensive (a roundtrip flight from Kathmandu to Paro costs about ~$400 roundtrip, even though the flight is just 45 minutes in each direction)
  • Bhutan has an insanely high tourist tax, or visitor fee, or whatever you’d like to refer to it as

As most foreigners do, I arranged my Bhutanese visa through a tour operator in the country. For two people for five days, that meant I had to wire them $1,730 in advance. For what?!? That’s ridiculous… or so I thought.

How expensive is a visa for Bhutan usually?

Bhutan isn’t cheap, and at a minimum you’re going to pay $200-250 per person per day. However, this isn’t simply a visa, but rather covers the cost of just about everything during your stay. Per Bhutan’s tourism website, it covers:

  • A minimum of 3 star accommodation (4 & 5 star may require an additional premium).
  • All meals
  • A licensed Bhutanese tour guide for the extent of your stay
  • All internal transport
  • Camping equipment and haulage for trekking tours
  • All internal taxes and charges
  • A sustainable tourism royalty of $65 (this royalty goes towards free education, free healthcare, poverty alleviation, along with the building of infrastructure)

The pricing then varies by season:

  • USD $200 per person per night for the months of January, February, June, July, August, and December.
  • USD $250 per person per night for the months of March, April, May, September, October, and November.

So I actually think that’s not too bad when you consider that it includes just about everything, though that’s still more than most backpackers spend when traveling, by a long shot.


How much was our visa?

We wanted to choose our own hotel, so didn’t do the “minimum daily package.” Instead we booked our own hotel, and they connected us to their preferred tour company.

For us the fee was $165 per person per night, plus a $40 one-time visa fee. This is a bit cheaper than the usual “minimum daily package,” since it didn’t include meals or accommodation. Instead our fee included the following:

  • Roundtrip airport transfer
  • Daily sightseeing with an English-speaking guide
  • All applicable government taxes
  • All museum and monument fees
  • The $65 tourism royalty, which goes towards free education, healthcare, infrastructure, and more

So for the two of us staying for five nights, we paid a total of $1,730 between the $165 per person per day tourist fee, plus the one-time visa fee.


Our experience with our tour company

I suck at planning in advance. So when I landed I knew the tour company would take us to our hotel, and then figured we could decide what we’d do once we arrived.

So I was quite surprised when we were picked up at the airport in a nice SUV by our guide and driver, who would be with us for the entire five days. They had an exact itinerary prepared for us for the entire trip, which was incredible. Our guide was knowledgable and friendly, and the driver was actually his brother (they work for the same tour company).

I was impressed by how well organized everything was. Despite them having an exact schedule for us, we could modify it as we wanted. We could sightsee for four hours a day, or 14 hours a day — whatever we preferred. And because it snowed in Bhutan during our trip (which is extremely rare), we had to modify our trip, since many roads were closed.

I’ll have a lot more about our time in Bhutan when I write the full trip report (I don’t usually write much about the destination, but I’ll make an exception here), but suffice to say I was very pleasantly surprised. The tour company wasn’t just a government agency there to take our money, but they were invested in making sure our entire experience was as good as possible.


Why Bhutan’s crazy high tourist fees are a good thing

Obviously I would have rather not paid $1,730 for the privilege of visiting, though I actually think Bhutan’s system is a net positive. What makes Bhutan so incredibly special is how unspoiled it is, and also how friendly the people are. It’s the only carbon negative country in the world, they have free education and healthcare, etc. Tourism is also so limited that you’re never fighting crowds to get anywhere, which adds to how special it is.

So let’s go through this for a second:

  • I feel good about Bhutan’s $65 per person per day royalty fee, which they’re putting back into their people; sure, it would be nice if everyone visited for free, but I doubt people would be so friendly towards tourists, I doubt the country would be as unspoiled, and I doubt the people would be as happy
  • If you can get over that, our real “out of pocket” for the tourist fee was $200 for both of us per day; for that we got driven everywhere we wanted to go (sometimes five hours of driving per day), admission to all the incredible sights, a knowledgable English speaking guide, etc.

That’s certainly not cheap, though it’s not all that much more than what you’d otherwise pay for arranging a reputable guide and driver with car somewhere else.

For example, the previous day in Kathmandu we paid $50 alone in entrance fees to UNESCO sites for the two of us. That’s a massive amount of money for Nepal. Meanwhile Bhutan has an endless number of sites that would no doubt charge an entrance fee in other countries, though that’s included in the tourism fee.

But most importantly, Bhutan just wouldn’t be the same if it were overcrowded with tourists. Earlier today we went to the Tiger’s Nest (Bhutan’s most famous attraction), and basically had it to ourselves. It was surreal.


Lastly, I also appreciate that every tourist is essentially required to have a guide. Bhutan is (obviously) a Buddhist country, and many of the sites you visit as a tourist are active religious sites, with customs that are not always obvious to someone who isn’t familiar with the local culture (where it’s okay to take pictures, where you need to take your shoes off, where it’s okay to enter, etc.)

Getting so much access to temples, etc., simply wouldn’t be practical without tourists having a guide.


Bottom line

Bhutan has the highest tourist fee of anywhere in the world. Of course I’d rather not pay that, but at the same time I don’t think Bhutan would be as special as it is without this restriction on tourism. The country wouldn’t feel as untouched, and we certainly wouldn’t have access to all the things we do.

You’re definitely paying a premium compared to other countries, though I actually don’t think it’s that bad when you consider everything you’re getting, especially if you feel good about the $65 per person government royalty.

I went into this trip wondering whether the tourism fee was worth it. After being in Bhutan, I can appreciate why they have it, and can’t recommend the place enough, if you can afford it.

If you’ve visited Bhutan, what are your thoughts on the tourist fee?

  1. As a tourist, it is still a lot of money for your stay. However, I suspect that Lucky/Ben will be able to claim it back as a business expense 😉

  2. Hey. Did you accually stay at the Le Meridien properties?
    How does it work if you want to book with points; and did you earn Points altough you (had to) book via an tarvel agency? Thanks fore some feedback on this.

  3. I’ve certainly paid more per day for trips when I’m booking specific activities. For points and miles it’s less than ideal but if you’re gonna go do this trip it’s going to be worth the money. I’d love to visit Bhutan. It will definitely go on the to do list.

  4. $100 per day for a private driver and car is nothing! I wish they had this in every other country I’ve visited. Usually it’s more like $300-400.
    Can’t wait to read the report. Bhutan will probably be jumping up several spots on my vacation to-do list.

  5. You call that expensive???how mych did you pay fir a night at your St Regis Maldives???give us a break its quite decent price.

  6. as I mentioned in another thread, and you touched on here, the usual daily rate covers your hotel and meals as well as guide and driver. As a solo traveler I felt it was a great bargain, but for a couple it’s somewhat less of a bargain. (Although the food in hotel buffets got monotonous and boring over the course of my 17 day stay). The regular hotels are somewhat basic in some places and nicer in other places. But it’s all part of the experience. My visit was in 2010 so I presume more, newer hotels have popped up since then.

    I didn’t consider it to be a “tourist fee” at all since it paid for all of my expenses. The only money I paid on top of the $250/day was for a few souvenirs.

    People also seem to be under the impression that Bhutan puts a limit on the number of visitors. That’s not the case – at least not directly. The daily tariff means the number of visitors is sort of self-limiting.

    I agree that the people are generally very nice. I did a trip report on FT after my trip with lots of photos. http://www.flyertalk.com/forum/trip-reports/1443137-three-weeks-bhutan.html

  7. Yeah, that’s right, keep all the riff raff out. Only elitist leftists who claim to care about poor people, and who spout off about climate change while jet setting around the world, should be allowed the privilege to visit Bhutan. Nevermind that more tourism would bring investment to the country, which would help the poor people there.

  8. @Mohamed: There is a huge difference in your comment. In the Maldives you have an option. You can probably visit the country in your own budget. Could be as a backpacker sleeping in a hostel or splurging for the St Regis. Based on what Ben described, you have no option if you want to visit Buthan. No matter how fancy you will stay there you have to pay this fee which may be too much for some people.

  9. I was in Bhutan 2015 and would go again, this time to the east. Fee was feeling a bit high when I wired it to some random account, but after getting there it was worth it (Though I usually don’t hire private transport, guide etc.). I would not go for 2 week trekking there, you can have whole place for your self also in Nepal, but the villages and sights in Bhutan are just incredible. You can also dump your guide if you feel so and explore a town by your self, do some shopping or visit cafe. Or invite them to watch a international football match that was played during our stay. Guide contacted the hotel to delay the dinner until the match was over.

  10. Ben do you really want a world where every country charges $1,700 to enter? Sure, all the sites would be exclusive… exclusive to a cohort of elites.

    I’m sure Bhutan is leaving a lot of economic development on the table by running a tourist shakedown racket. I think if they want to ration access to certain space-limited sites, they could charge high admission fees. But this is just a government takeover tourist infrastructure… Trust me, you wouldn’t love that if every country did it.

  11. Bhutan is smart. Make it expensive and hard to get into, and all of a sudden you’ve got an attractive travel destination that you can squeeze a lot of money out of… no need for pricy mass tourism infrastructure.

    Let’s face it, you could get a similar experience in Nepal, just as you can enjoy beautiful overwater bungalows on this side of the world in Jamaica. But people will clamour for Bhutan and Maldives because it’s perceived as more exclusive and therefore comes with bragging rights.

    Well played, Bhutan. Well played.

  12. The “value” is decent and experience incredible. It’s somewhat of a silk glove iron fist situation – the arrangement also gives the government some control over your movement. And if you did not make the trip east to bumthang or beyond you missed out on some incredible stuff.

    And stvr – this is a country a generation removed from near-total isolation. Opening up and general modernization bring with them a lot of complications and opportunities. The country is in a pretty delicate social and political solution. They know they’re leaving a lot of economic development on the table and are ok with that.

  13. Lucky-
    Something you probably didn’t know is that you can get a “visa” for up to 2 years FREE if you have a resident of Bhutan “invite” you. I have a friend attending college with me from there and told him how crazy high the cost of the trip was for you, but he said if I wanted to go all he needs to do is invite me, whatever that means. He said the process is not so bad so i may look into that for the future. Of course I don’t know how practical something like that would be for everyone, but hey if you have a Bhutanese friend why not….

  14. If it works for Bhutan and its people then all is good, that’s all that counts. Let them charge whatever they want, I have no issues with that at all, good for them! Whether any of us like the fees or not is entirely insignificant. It’s nothing but arrogance to judge Bhutan over this, or trying to educate them how things should be done.

  15. People are assholes. More places with fragile ecosystems should charge a fee to keep people out. Usually the assholes can’t afford the fee but in general more people stress the place more.

  16. Sounds suspiciously like “a wall” for Bhutan. If their people like it and are good with it, then good for them. That’s what national sovereignty is all about. Of course they are making trade offs re: economic development, infrastructure, poverty, economic opportunity etc. However, THEY are the ones making those tradeoffs.

  17. You can still choose your hotels even if you go for the “minimum daily package”. Agencies will often make suggestions, but it’s entirely up to you where you stay – and indeed since price just doesn’t come into it you can choose solely on the basis of whichever hotels look best to you.

  18. Does it mean you can’t use points to book hotel since there’s min spending requirement each day?

  19. Masai Mara charges $80/day. Kilimanjaro charges $140/day just for the privilege of entering. Ngorongoro charges $200/day. $200 is a bargain for Bhutan given that everything is included. The price of visiting Tibet is similar.

  20. Our guide explained the way of thinking to us this way:

    They are looking for “high value, low impact” tourism. Yes, they know they could make more money if they did it differently. But the King saw the problems the “backpacker” set caused in Nepal specifically and didn’t want that in his country.

    Yes, it means only wealthy people can go to Bhutan and I feel incredibly fortunate to have done so. However, I have also seen how hordes of tourists can destroy something that was once special. Their country, their rules and they want to keep as much to the traditional ways as possible.

    The people are free and literally are polled every two years (I think) about their happiness. These polls have brought in cell phones, cable tv etc. as the people expressed that’s what they wanted.

    Our guide was so fun and a bit of a celebrity in Bhutan (on the national archery team) so it was pretty fun to travel with him. We got to sit with the team at the archery tournament and drink the arak with the team. He coached us on social errors we were making (if you have one arak, you have to have 2). He felt like a friend as did the driver.

    We stayed at the Uma (by Como) hotels and both were amazing. We paid a whole lot of money, quite a bit more than the minimum, however with food, driver, guide, lux accommodations included it didn’t feel like a rip off.

  21. +1 Hacksaw Jim Duggan

    Though perhaps you are unaware budget travel is actually possible in Maldives, whereas in Bhutan it isn’t. Had a nice time on a local island in Maldives last year, flew Air Asia from/to Malaysia, met lots of locals and avoided the resorts but still had great experiences + excellent dive operation. Bhutan has been able to preserve its fragile culture whereas decades of low-budget tourism in Nepal led to all sorts of problems too numerous to articulate here. On the other hand, Bhutan kicked out over 100,000 Lotshampa (Bhutanese of ethnic Nepali origin), literally one-sixth of its population, and they wound up as refugees; thousands were resettled in the United States. So everything isn’t perfect in paradise.

  22. I appreciate your concern for the Bhutanese people and agree with it, but your title and the way you approach this post is off-putting and condescending. Since the fee is secondary to the greater good it’s meant to protect, why not focus on that instead?

    As it stands, you sound like a condescending trust-fund kind: “Bhutan’s Insanely High Tourist Fee Is a Good Thing [because, among other reasons, I’m loaded and it’s a tax write-off anyway].” This is ironic, of course, being that you are a self-proclaimed self-made man. You don’t come from money, but now that you have it you suddenly feel superior to everyone else in the world—classic “New Money” syndrome.

    Regardless, I’m sure your trip to Bhutan has made you feel like royalty, which is clearly what you crave when you travel.

  23. FWIW, there has been a good bit of debate in the country the last couple of years over whether to scrap the current system to allow more mass-market tourism. So it’s not like it will necessarily always be the same way.

  24. I went last year to Bhutan and really enjoyed it, but i would suggest not going when it’s winter unless you will stay in the Le Meridien or other hotels of that level the hotels that were included we just not adequately heated for sleeping at night, literally piling the duvet’s and leaving the heaters on to no avail to make it warm, but once we switched to the le meridien it was fine – keep in mind you follow their schedule and their restaurants and we had our guide take him to a place regular bhutanese would eat – definitely a different experience. i still recommend it!

  25. Thanks for the write up. I had cursorily looked into Bhutan, then wrote it off as too complicated, too expensive, and too elitist. But it makes sense now. If the people want this type of tourism, then kudos to them for setting up the structure to make it work. It sounds like a good mix of guiding the tourists and giving the tourists the freedom to choose where they go and how much hands-on guidance they want. The price seems fair, given that there must be a lot of tourism infrastructure that needs to be built and maintained.
    Bhutan is back on my bucket list. Just have to prioritize it and budget for it.

  26. Sheila E – you sounds like a twat. Thanks for your keen insight. No one really cares.

    Lucky – I really appreciate your review of what sounds like a great trip and one I hope we can make in the next couple years. Moving much higher on the list.

  27. Seems to me that the all-up fee for your stay was very reasonable considering what it included.
    It will happily deter backpacker types, who have infested and added nothing positive to neighbouring countries over the decades. I find your several references to (what you consider) the high tourist tax/fee, and how you would “rather not pay it” to be churlish in the extreme. I think they should quadruple it!

  28. Very good article, Ben – one of the best in here in a while. I didn’t know any of the background to this so made for interesting reading – looking forward to the full TR in due course.

  29. Who really cares about Bhutan? You’re giving it a lot of “press”, are you on the payroll somehow?

  30. Lucky – interesting that you’re OK with this tourist fee but are against the hike in the Egyptian tourist visa. Has this trip made you rethink your position?

  31. Bhutan is the not highest tourist fee in the world; I visited North Korea last year and if you go alone, you will spend at least $250 per day for guides, accommodation, and food. The restrictions placed on one’s movement are a bit more than that you describe above, but I would still strongly recommend a visit. Just make sure you take a tour that gets you outside the capital city in order to see a bit of the countryside. In my case I visited 8 of their 9 provinces. North Korea also gets a small number of tourists annually which makes for a very interesting experience. You should also fly Air Koryo. It is not the best airline in the world but beats all of the low cost budget airlines.

    I would like to visit Bhutan as well. Hopefully in a couple of years, I can make it there.

  32. The budget travelers can always try Sikkim, which was another mountain kingdom before India took it over, or Nepal or Leh Ladahk, a very Tibetan area in the mountains of India.

    On the other hand, there are 4 or 5 Aman facilities in Bhutan if you really want to get a royal treatment.

  33. given that this fee includes everything, its more of a package tour than a fee and seems completely reasonable. in fact the fact that one doesnt have to worry about any of the logistics is a boon in itself. i am sure any other place in the world would require similar expenses for what is included here.

  34. When we were in Nepal, we found out that a professor at the university earned US$300 a month. Not per day, not per week, per month

  35. I am sorry but I would like to disagree with you that the high tourist fee is a goo thing.
    While this may not make any difference to a person like you who is fortunately well off at least to the extent that you would have spent a minimum of this much anyways. However, for a backpacker or a person travelling to visit a friend in Bhutan, it is highly unnecessary and stupid.

    What this does is ensures that only people who want to stay in a 3 star accomodation minimum can get into the country. This is perfectly fine for a lot of people, but for the people who would not mind staying in a 1 or 2 star hotel/airbnb/hostel in order to save money while still exploring the world, your public endorsement of this policy is really elitist.

    I hope you change at least the title of this post so as not to encourage elitist policies such as this.

  36. @Devarsh Saraf

    This has nothing to do with elitism. It’s a pragmatic solution applied by a nation with very few resources, wanting to maintain their unique identity and the equilibrium of their society by evading the perils of mass tourism. The country would collapse under the weight of every Tom, Dick and Harry footing up with their GoPro camera seeking cheap thrills and Insta-ready imagery. There are countless examples out there of what happens when you have no regulation or planning – AirBnB being one of them. At least this way, you know the revenues being collected from visitors are being pumped back into civic projects. The reality of life is not everyone will have access to the same travel experiences…

  37. I wish Italy would charge an “insanely high tourist fee” especially for Venice which is being totally ruined by overcrowding with tourists. Banning all cruise ships over a certain size from the port would be a positive step.

  38. When I went four years ago, I had a similar issue with the high tourist fee but after visiting, I totally get it. If you use an Indian passport, you won’t need a visa or this tourist daily fee (at least back in 2013).
    Overall I wish other countries did something similar so capitalism/tourism wouldn’t overrun or change the country’s culture or every day of life. In fact, I wish Myanmar did something similar rather than becoming the next Bangkok.
    In my life the only times I was part of tour with English speaking guide, etc. was for my visit to Bhutan, Iran, and North Korea (I’m normally an independent backpacker) and I truly appreciated both tours and felt the money paid was worth every penny.

    I visited and trekked in Bhutan in 2015. I was helping look for a local partner to offer a cultural/trekking package to clients who had already trekked in Nepal. I agree with much of what Lucky writes – beautiful country, friendly people, uncrowded, unique, and the fee is a steal for the services you receive (The two of us were outfitted with a driver, 2 guides, 3 porters, and 7 mules!). HOWEVER, there are many aspects of the tourist experience that would make me think twice before returning.
    1) You are forced to check your religion at the door. Are you a Christian? It’s against the law to speak about it.
    2) The tour companies can be very frustrating. They have their list of approved tourist destinations and it is a battle to get them to deviate from the list. It sounds like Lucky had a tour guide who would go with the flow, but they can be very rigid. The rigidness is for good reason – if a tourist is seriously injured in Bhutan, the guide can go to jail for life.
    3) Much of what the guides tell you is government propaganda, half-truths, or just inaccurate. In fact, the guides are less about serving the tourists than serving the government – controlling the message and supervising foreigners. For example they will say that it is illegal to drink alcohol or smoke in public. What they really mean is it illegal to do so in front of tourists. I was able to visit a karaoke bar on night where I saw a drunken fight between smokers outside the bar. They will tell you that a temple was built in the 8th century, when in fact it was built 17 years ago. One of my guides even told me that they lie to tourists if the tourist wants to do something inconvenient. “We tell them the mountain pass is impassable due to snow.” (This may have happened to Lucky.) The guides constantly recite the line about Gross National Happiness over Gross Domestic Product. When you dig deeper, you learn that their desire for material goods is every bit as strong as the West’s. Whether it was a tin roof to replace the traditional thatch, or a new television, the Bhutanese are excited about wealth. Another common line from the guides is their magnanimous King gave them democracy. When you dig deeper, you learn that the “democracy” does whatever the king tells it to do, and the king is revered as something of a deity. Yet another propaganda line the guides will tell you is about living in harmony with their environment. During my trek, I saw virgin forests being cut to build roads into the mountains. There were no environmental control devices. The bulldozers simply pushed the dirt and rock over the hill into the freshwater streams below, out of sight of most tourists. These roads were being built by poor Indian laborers, whom the Bhutanese scorned, and who lived in squalid conditions.
    4) Just like the claims about their country are often specious, the buildings are sometimes just for show. I finished my trek early, but the tour company said I had to camp another night because there were no available hotel rooms. I called BS (every hotel I visited was empty) and insisted they find a hotel room. Sure enough, I was put in a beautiful big hotel where I was the only guest. (The tour company would have made more money if I camped.) The hardwood floor broke when I stepped on it. The showers were only equipped for 5 minutes of hot water. By this point in my visit, this sort of thing did not surprise me. Much of what you see as a tourist is “for show” with little substance to back it up.

    In sum, many aspects of Bhutan are like North Korea. The people are isolated from the outside world. Their beliefs and culture are shaped by royal propaganda. Tourists have very little opportunity to dig deeper into the “real” Bhutan without the supervision of a guide. It can feel like visiting the twilight zone.

    I don’t regret visiting and I would encourage anyone to visit once, but I would just encourage tourists to not come under the spell of the Shangri-la on the surface, which leads to ignoring the “real” Bhutan.

  40. + Steven M

    Although I have been to a huge swath of countries in Asia and love to explore new places, I will not go to Bhutan until I am clear on who benefits from the “insanely high tourist fee” that is supposedly good!!?

    I spent a summer about 15 years ago working with Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. They had horrible stories of what they had faced while in Bhutan not to mention how hard it was to have their land stolen, be expelled by force, have families broken apart, and to live in refugee camps. Those Bhutanese were definitely not the happiest people on the planet and in fact the suicide rate in refugees placed in the US is about double of the normal population.

    According to Obama white house, out of the over 100k (1/6th Bhutanese) who became refugees, the US has provided asylum for about 85% of those who have been gotten out of the camps.


    I like Kostya’s comparison of Bhutan to North Korea. Probably the difference is that while political opponents in North Korea might be sent to work camps within the country, the Bhutanese had their property taken and were forcibly expelled outside the country.

  41. Unlike Jon, I believe more people should visit the Bhutans and North Koreas of this world. The amount of money generated by tourism is negligible but it is truly the only way that the local people get a bit of a view of the outside world. I know one of my guide’s in North Korea was very impressed when my viewpoints did not always match those of the majority Americans. She actually learned that we are indeed all not the same in our own countries. At least it’s a start.

  42. People are missing the big takeaway here. Funds had to be wired, which means no credit card points!

  43. I have been to both countries and concur that it is a good thing to spend time there. We get a close up view (albeit restricted), we live first hand some of the unintended consequences of dictatorships (extreme low crime), and in the case of the DPRK some fenomenal artistic talent (even if achieved by force), and we do get to plant some little seeds in the hearts of those we (rightfully, I think) view as terribly oppressed. I was born and raised in a dictatorship and I remember how nice it was to see people from other countries, their smiles, their seemingly carefree lives. So, go.

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