NEW DELHI: As per a notification made by Bhutan's government with the opening of their borders on September 23 (after a two-year gap) for tourists comes a levy called the sustainable development fee (SDF) which is Rs 1200 ($15) per day per person for Indians and $200 (Rs 16,000) per person per day for other nationalities. This is in addition to the expense of travelling, hotel bookings etc.
"Bhutan is politely saying 'Indians are not welcome'. The SDF has come as a sharp blow for tourists wishing to travel from India. The cost of airfare has doubled from Rs 23,000 to over Rs 48,000. as there are no group airfare discounts, no discount for students, no royalty waiver, no fam tours," an expert in the travel sector pointed out.
Up until now, there was no levy on Indians visiting Bhutan who just needed any Identity proof (not necessarily a passport) to enter the country. In June 2020 a notification was issued by the Bhutanese government that Indians too had to pay a surcharge which was 12 per cent of the $65 that was being levied on every other nationality. However, this could not be brought to use as the pandemic led to a lockdown. A few days back an announcement was made by the Bhutanese government on the reopening of their borders and with that came the news of the SDF for every Indian too.
"India shares strong diplomatic, political and trade ties with Bhutan so this levy is not going down well with us. The best way to counter this is by levying a reciprocal fee for Bhutanese nationals who travel to India," the expert added.
With the outbreak of the pandemic tourist arrivals dropped by 90 per cent in Bhutan in 2020. Interestingly out of the 29,812 tourist arrivals in Bhutan, around 22,298 were from India. India has been a significant contributor in tourist arrivals in Bhutan till now.
Bhutan has been following a 'high value, low impact' tourism policy, wherein they want to target only the high-end tourists who can afford this type of levy – which is said to be the highest globally.
"The new approach to tourism in Bhutan is aimed at elevating the travel experience in Bhutan and the industry through fair and healthy competition. Service providers will be encouraged to continue upgrading their quality, September 23, 2022, being a starting point," according to the Tourism Council of Bhutan.
Meanwhile, tourist destinations in other parts of the world too are considering regulating the inflow of tourists. Venice for instance is considering a daily surcharge of anywhere between $3 to $10 per day from next year. However, Bhutan has taken the surcharge to another level.
Whether the Rs 1,200 SDF will be levied from Indians or revoked only time will tell, but till then the tourist sector in India and within Bhutan will be sitting on the edge.