The Bhutan Visa Myth

Ah, Bhutan. Its mere name evokes visions of a far-off “Shangri-La.” A Himalayan kingdom steeped in customs, where traditional dress is the norm and mystical rituals are alive and well. A land where monasteries are perched on cliffs and the King might just come up and shake your hand.

Tiger's Nest

The Taktsang Monastery, also known as the “Tiger’s Nest”

Ever since my family and I traveled to Bhutan in 2010, people have said to me, “But I heard getting a visa for Bhutan is really difficult!” It’s not that it’s difficult to get a visa for Bhutan, it’s that it’s quite expensive, sort of…

How to Travel to Bhutan

Contrary to popular belief, the Kingdom of Bhutan does not place any caps on the number of tourists who are allowed to travel there. But you can’t just up and go. Unless you find yourself in the great fortune to receive an invitation from a Bhutanese national, or you are a citizen of India, Bangladesh or the Maldives, you must travel to Bhutan on an organized tour.

Organized tour? If you’re like me, you might despise organized tours. Sorry, but there isn’t a way around this aside from the two ways listed above. Here’s the thing though. The tour doesn’t have to be a big group tour. The tour could be just you. In my case, it was just the 5 members of my family, along with a guide and driver, which was actually quite a pleasant experience.

"Blow Horn"

The ubiquitous “Blow Horn,” painted on the back of nearly every truck in Bhutan

There’s another catch though…

The Daily Tariff

Not only must you go on an organized tour, the tour operator must charge you US$250 per person for every night you are in the country (during the High Season; go during the summer or winter, when the weather is not-so favorable, and you’ll save $50 a night). This fee is all-inclusive once you are on the ground, with the exception of beverages. Do note that groups of 1 or 2 people pay an additional daily fee.

So for a family of 3 to spend 10 nights in Bhutan, it would cost a total of US$7,500. Transportation to Bhutan is not included (the only airline serving Bhutan is Druk Air and, with no competition, their flights are not cheap).

Druk Air

Druk Air at Paro Airport

Now, compare that with the costs of traveling independently in any of the surrounding countries and the price is fairly mind-boggling, at least at first glance. Our guide did share with us that a substantial portion of the tariff (35% when we visited) goes to the government as a tax, to provide services to its citizens and increase that Gross National Happiness that Bhutan is so famous for.

Jampa Lhakhang

A woman carries prayer beads at the Jampa Lhakhang in Bumthang

Not to mention that the Daily Tariff actually serves a bit of a purpose. Our guide told us rather bluntly that the tariff was designed “to keep Backpackers and Hippies out” (the irony being that I’m a backpacker and my parents are hippies!).

Think about it though. For all the good travel can do, it can also have a negative effect on places, particularly those that turn into party central, losing their identity in the process. Not to mention those spots drowning in people shamelessly peddling services to tourists (Luxor, Egypt anyone?)

What Bhutan has succeeded in doing is to preserve their culture unlike anywhere else I have been (Iraqi Kurdistan is a close second, though decades of conflict have worn away at that). The result is all the wonder and mystique that Bhutan is famous for, and having been there, I have to tell you… I wouldn’t want it any other way!

Pensive Monk

A novice monk in deep thought at Punakha Dzong

There are ways of getting discounts, including children and students, or those who stay for quite a while. The Tourism Council of Bhutan maintains a useful list of these, as well as additional surcharges.

How to Get a Visa for Bhutan

Once you’re ready to start the process, you need to get in touch with a tour operator. They will handle all the arrangements for you, including organizing your stay in Bhutan, your flights on Druk Air and your visa, which will be stamped into your passport upon arrival. The flights arrangements cannot even be made until you’ve paid for your trip and visa clearance has been authorized.

Bhutan Visa

Bhutan Visa and Entrance/Exit stamps

There are a myriad of tour operators out there, both within Bhutan and abroad. I’m always a fan of helping out local businesses, so my family went with a Bhutanese operator (Bhutan Eco-Expedition, if you’re curious), recommended to us by a friend of my grandmother’s who was her tour leader when she visited Bhutan and fell in love with it. It was a wonderful experience, though working with a domestic operator will require you to spend some time wiring money.

The Tourism Council of Bhutan also maintains a list of all registered tour operators.

Paro Dzong

Paro Dzong

So there you have it! Getting a visa for Bhutan is as easy as contacting a tour operator, working out the details of what you want, paying for your tour and letting the operator handle the rest!

What about you?

Have you traveled to Bhutan? What was your experience working with a tour operator?

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31 Responses to The Bhutan Visa Myth

  1. Fie March 11, 2013 at 12:25 am #

    Hi Aaron!

    My friends and I were just planning on this and your tips came at the right time! I hope they’ll be able to accomodate a few more ‘Backpackers and Hippies’ like us. Hehe. I can’t wait to experience this beautiful place.

    Thanks again for sharing!
    Fie
    Travel Chameleon / Malaysia

    • Aaron March 11, 2013 at 1:12 am #

      Haha power to the backpackers and hippies! Glad you found this to be useful!

  2. Caroline Eubanks March 11, 2013 at 6:29 am #

    Great post! I’m definitely interested in going to Bhutan one day so it’s good to know that I need to start saving!

    • Aaron March 12, 2013 at 1:50 am #

      Yep! Start saving those pennies. It’s worth every single cent!

  3. Maria March 11, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    Just getting there to see the Tiger’s Nest would be worth the effort.
    Kudos on the photos too – beautiful!

    • Aaron March 12, 2013 at 1:51 am #

      Yes the Tiger’s Nest is quite impressive (it was what we did on our last day)! We were able to witness a ritual that was going on inside the temple too was just wonderful. But there are so many incredible sites in Bhutan, though none quite as dramatic. It’s literally like stepping right into a fairy tale…

  4. Kara Blythe Abroad March 12, 2013 at 1:48 am #

    Thanks for the tips! I am hoping to go to Bhutan this fall/winter, and all this information is sure to come in handy. Great photos too!

    • Aaron March 12, 2013 at 1:54 am #

      Glad you found this to be helpful! Fall and Spring are the best seasons to visit. Winter it’s quite cold and snowy and some acommodations lack electric heating, instead relying on an old-fashioned tried and true method of keeping a wood burning stove in each room with stones on top to retain the heat. It’s cool and clever, but getting out of bed in the morning is quite the wakeup call when you get out from under the warm covers into the freezing room…and I went in late March!

  5. Bethaney - Flashpacker Family March 12, 2013 at 11:38 pm #

    Great post Aaron. I’d love to go to Bhutan. 🙂

  6. Bridge ToBhutan May 19, 2013 at 11:42 pm #

    Thanks a lot Aaron for debunking myths about traveling to Bhutan. It is timely and helpful. Two questions I always get during my travels abroad is: visa fee alone is US$250 per day (not knowing that everything is pretty much included/arranged & it is hassle-free) and, there is yearly quota on the visas issued by the government (There is no quota; it is automatically controlled by infrastructure constraints – esp. the availability of seats on the only airline “Drukair” esp. during high travel season). Another thought in peoples’ mind is that it also rains a lot during the monsoon period (June-Aug) in Bhutan (which is not the case; even if it rains, it does not pour like in India or Bangladesh etc. It does not rain everyday and it rains mostly in the late afternoon or evenings). Trekking & camping could get bit sloppy but for cultural immersion programs with day hikes, it is totally fine and the weather should not be a deterring factor. Also, there is a notion that one cannot do “independent & solo travel” in Bhutan. (Yes, you can! there is a US$40 surcharge for solo travelers).
    Right now we have not reached the tipping point yet but as more people become aware of Bhutan and we get more visitors, we will have to only increase the daily minimum tariff before our country becomes like any other travel destination. As it is, we are beginning to see an influx of “un-mindful” visitors (money is no object) for whom “Bhutan” is just another item to be checked-off in their shopping list 🙂 so we have to be cautious & we have to deal with it. Hopefully, we will have decision/policy makers who will continue to see and appreciate the wisdom in the current tourism policy. Only time will tell. Thanks again. Happy travels!!!

    • Aaron May 20, 2013 at 1:23 am #

      I actually wrote this post because after I visited Bhutan in 2010, everyone kept asking me about visa quotas and seemed surprised when I told them that wasn’t true! It’s interesting that you say that visas granted are controlled by Druk Air availability. I never really thought about it that way, though couldn’t Druk Air expand its fleet? Not to mention that visitors can enter by road from India, though I imagine this is not nearly as popular a way to access Bhutan.

      As for your point about independent travel, I think many of us who travel independantly take that definition to mean you can just go wherever you want whenever you want without the aid of a guide, and that’s just not the case in Bhutan. What I always tell people though is that the tour could be just you, though for many serious travelers, the extra single supplement stings a bit.

      I remember while I was there, our guide told us about how the newly elected government really wanted to increase the annual number of tourists enormously and he wasn’t sure about the wisdom of that. And though I’m not a fan of having to go on a tour, I fiercly defend Bhutan’s decision to impose the tariff because it’s helped maintain what’s wonderful about Bhutan… the fact that it’s not like any other travel destination and the culture has been preserved so well. We all worried that an influx of visitors would start to chip away at what was so special about Bhutan and am sad to hear that this is starting to happen!

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  7. Yenny July 3, 2013 at 11:06 pm #

    I agree! obtaining a VISA to Bhutan really isn’t as daunting as thinking where to get the money to pay for the expenses.

    • Aaron December 4, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

      Hahaha very true! But that isn’t really all the much different than saving up money to travel anywhere else, is it? 😛

  8. jonah October 5, 2013 at 5:41 pm #

    Hi Aaron,

    you mention off hand that there is a discount for “those who stay for quite a while” can you elaborate? I looked on the Bhutan tourism site and saw nothing about long term travel.,

    thanks

    • Aaron October 6, 2013 at 2:38 am #

      Hi Jonah,

      To encourage longer treks, a discount is applied on the Royalty (the government tax portion of the daily tariff which amounts to US$65 per day). You save 50% of the Royalty on the 9th day and 100% on the 15th day. So High Season, the base daily tariff would reduce to US$217.50 after night 8 and US$185 after night 14. You’d still pay the full rates up until those dates.

      http://www.tourism.gov.bt/plan/discounts

  9. Hannah Wasielewski April 14, 2014 at 3:58 pm #

    Great advice! Bhutan has always been one of those countries that seems out of reach for me. Now that I know the actual prices, I think it just got a little more out of reach! One day I’ll hopefully make it there 🙂

    • Aaron April 15, 2014 at 12:30 pm #

      Hahahahaha trust me though, it’s worth every single penny. Start saving up!

  10. Raul (@ilivetotravel) May 30, 2014 at 8:20 pm #

    Good info, Aaron. Bhutan is on my list, whatever I need to do to be able to go!

    • Aaron June 2, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

      Thanks Raul! Start saving your pennies because it is worth every single penny…

  11. Sudatta Dasgupta November 11, 2014 at 12:06 am #

    Hey Aaron!

    Your article reminded me so much of my trip to Bhutan…We (my husband and I) were, as you said, on an unorganized trip and had unmatched fun! The Tiger’s Nest is a must trek for adventure lovers…for peace-lovers, the serenity of this place is almost contagious.

    A similar article that touched my heart:
    https://www.cyclicx.com/bhutan-travel-a-mythical-and-mystical-experience.html

    • Aaron November 11, 2014 at 11:56 pm #

      The trek up to Tiger’s Nest was definitely one of the highlights of my trip to Bhutan (though it’s hard to beat meeting the King). I agree that it’s so peaceful and I really love the fact that when they were reconstructing it, the government declined to keep the lift that was installed to bring supplies up the mountain because the journey to Tiger’s nest was SUPPOSED to be hard. I just love that!

  12. Sadat January 14, 2015 at 6:59 am #

    Thank you for this write-up! I am a Bangladeshi and planning to visit Bhutan with my wife. What is your suggestion about an independent tour? Do you think we would be able to minimize cost? Or will it be a wise idea at all?

    • Aaron January 20, 2015 at 10:40 pm #

      I honestly have no idea of what costs are like for individual travel in Bhutan, as that was not an option that was not available to me. Being Bangladeshi, though, you can travel independently there. You’ll have to let me know what the experience was like!

  13. Jigme Tsering March 6, 2015 at 5:53 am #

    Hi,

    Seems that Aaron really have been able to answer questions on travel to Bhutan. Like Sudda mentioned, a trip to the Tigers Temple or Tigers Nest is a must when visiting Bhutan.

    Cheers, Jigme

  14. Jigme Tsering March 9, 2015 at 3:08 am #

    Country which does not require Bhutanese visa to enter Bhutan.

    Bangladesh, Maldivians & Indian nationals does not require producing visa while coming to Bhutan.

    Thai nationals holding official and diplomatic passport while coming to Bhutan do not require producing visa since the visa will by stamped upon arrival at the Paro International airport by Immigration authority. But those people carrying ordinary passport need to produce Bhutanese visa in advance.

    All other nationalities require visa which needs to be process through a travel agent in Bhutan. While visa is approved in advance, it will be stamped at the airport during arrival. 🙂

    • Aaron March 9, 2015 at 9:09 pm #

      Very true. When I went, our tour company sent us our visa authorizations. If you’re not a national of one of those 3 countries the only way to get a visa is through a tour company. Unless, of course, you have the great fortune of being invited by a Bhutanese national…

    • jannatul ferdous September 9, 2015 at 8:40 am #

      Hello, I am from Bangladesh. I want to go to Bhutan with my family and live for long time ( upto 2/3 years). Can you please tell me if I can renew my tourist visa for that long?

      • Aaron September 13, 2015 at 7:15 pm #

        What you’re describing is NOT a tourist visa. A tourist visa allows for a stay of a short period of time. Anything long term and you would likely need to obtain a residential permit, which is something else entirely. You should consult with the Bhutanese embassy in Dhaka.

  15. Alina Jack June 29, 2016 at 6:51 am #

    Thinking about to travelling Bhutan and your post did a lot of help to me. It has all the tips about trips for which i was worrying. Thank you for complete guide about Bhutan.

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