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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?