Bhutan, the land of the Thunder Dragon, is for many people the “holy grail” of travel destinations.
Bhutan was closed to foreign travelers until 1974. In the first year that Bhutan opened up to tourism, only 287 tourists visited the country. In 2015 the number had increased to 48,800 tourists visiting the country. More than 90% of these are Indian tourists.
Bhutan is the most unique travel destination the world. Being such a unique country, it also demands unique rules to be followed.
All tourists must obtain a visa before arriving in Bhutan.
Visas are issued after you have made a full payment to the Tourism Council for your entire trip of Bhutan.
The money remains with the Tourism Council until your trip inside Bhutan is complete. The travel agency is paid once you have left the country.
Bhutan no longer restricts tourist numbers and operates an open door policy.
ONLY citizens of India, Bangladesh, and The Maldives can travel to Bhutan without a pre-arranged tour.
A passport with a minimum validity of six months from the date of departure from the country is required and one must pay a fee of 40USD for the visa.
There’s a 16 USD fee if you want to extend your stay.
The High season fee is the government-set fee of 250 USD each day in the months of March, April, May, September, October, and November.
The Low season fee is 200 USD for the months of January, February, June, July, August, and December. There’s also a surcharge of 40 USD, for each day if traveling alone.
So the fee is 290 USD each day in high season and 240 USD a day in low season if you’re traveling alone.
From your daily fee, 65 USD is used to provide free education and healthcare for the locals in the country.
What does the daily fee include?
The daily fee includes:
- A minimum of 3-star accommodation.
- All meals – Breakfast, lunch, dinner.
- A licensed Tour Guide.
- All transportation inside Bhutan, except flights.
- Camping equipment, horses, to carry your gear, a cook, and a lunch boy when hiking.
- All Entrance fees.
The 3-star hotels in Bhutan hold a much higher standard than 3* star hotels in the neighboring countries Nepal and India.
You will get a new model private car with an experienced driver during your entire stay in Bhutan.
Any restaurant allowed to serve food to foreign travelers has to be authorised by Tourism Council of Bhutan.
Accommodation during your stay in Bhutan.
As mentioned, your accommodation during your stay in Bhutan is included in your daily fee, so you don’t need worry about hotel bookings. All hotels that are allowed to accommodate tourists have been approved by the Tourism Council.
I stayed in two different hotels during my stay in Thimphu, first when I arrived at the airport, and then when coming back to Thimphu from my trip to northern part of the country.
Getting to Bhutan.
Getting to “The Land of the Thunder Dragon” is an adventure on its own.
The country’s only international airport is located in Paro, and landing there is a thrilling experience. Both landing and takeoff must be completed manually, and only 8 pilots in the world are certified to land and takeoff from Paro International Airport.
There are currently only 2 airlines flying to Paro Airport.
Druk Air, the national airlines and the privately owned Bhutan Airlines.
Two airlines currently have flights to Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai, Bagdogra, Guwahati & Gaya in India, Kathmandu, Bangkok, Dhaka & Singapore.
Flights to and from Paro are only allowed under visual meteorological conditions and are restricted to daylight hours from sunrise to sunset so delays are very common. My flight from Paro to New Delhi was delayed by three hours because of heavy rain.
If flying is not an option, Bhutan has three land border crossings with India, Phuntsholing in the west, Gelephu in the central region and Samdrup Jongkhar in the east.
There are NO open borders between Bhutan and China.
How to Choose the right Travel Agency.
As you already should know, the only way to travel to Bhutan is with a pre-arranged tour through a licenced travel agency in Bhutan. There is almost two thousand Government licensed travel agencies so it can be difficult to pick the right one. Four of the big agencies receive more than 95% of all the tourists visiting.
All of the Travel Agencies in the country must follow strict government rules about only visiting government authorised hotels, restaurants etc.
It does appear that the big companies always go to the same restaurants etc.
I booked with a smaller agency so I had more freedom choosing which restaurants I wished to visit (they still have to be authorised by the Tourism Council). After ten days of local food, I was craving for a hamburger so we ended up going to a gourmet hamburger restaurant that was run by an Australian woman. The big travel agencies would have never taken me to a restaurant like that.
I used the small Travel Agency “Breathe Bhutan”, that is run by the friendly Kinley, that went out of his way to make my trip the trip of my life. I would book with them again without a doubt.