It seems unlikely that the government will back down as Bhutan has always done things differently. Even against the backdrop of global collective mania over Covid, his strict approach stood out. The country has only allowed one tourist to visit during the pandemic, a 70-year-old woman who was quarantined for three weeks upon arrival. And when it opened its doors to tourists in 1974, it did so with great trepidation, opting for a “High Value, Low Volume” model that it has stuck to ever since, with tourists only allowed to experience the country only during specific tours. One of the benefits of the new fee is that some independent travel will finally be allowed.
Despite this approach, tourism has proven to be important for the country, accounting for 6% of its GDP before the pandemic. According to figures from its tourism board, in 2019 315,599 tourists visited, spending $225m (£187m). The opening of a handful of high-end hotels from the international brand Six Senses in recent years has also hinted at an intention to expand its tourism offering – previously simple lodges were essentially the only form of accommodation.
Are high tourism taxes the future of travel?
With responsible tourism in mind and governments reeling from the costs of the pandemic, other destinations may introduce new tour fees.
Jenny Southan, CEO of travel trends platform Globetrender, predicted more countries would follow. “My concern, however, is that some will use greenwashing to justify charging ‘sustainability’ fees on arrival, and there will be no one to check how these funds are spent,” she added. .
“Put a cap on visitors would be fairer, but when a country also needs to generate revenue, charging tourists to enter will allow it to manage capacity without compromising profits.”
One place experiencing a tourism cap is Japan, which currently only allows 30,000 foreign tourists to visit per month. Seemingly a measure to limit the spread of Covid, no plans have been announced to lower the cap and it could certainly be used to manage skyrocketing visitor levels to hotspots such as Kyoto before the pandemic. At the micro level, Barcelona has imposed a limit of 30 people on the size of tourist groups, while tourists wishing to visit two fragile coves in the south of France must now book a slot, with a fine of €68 (£57) for those found. on the beach without a pass.
Bhutan’s new fee is also part of a general shift away from mass tourism in favor of pursuing more affluent travellers, especially to popular backpacking destinations. Stuart Nash, New Zealand’s tourism minister, told a travel conference last year that his target tourist flies “business class or premium economy, hires a helicopter around Franz Josef [Glacier] and eat at an upscale restaurant. Bali and Thailand have also announced plans to attract “quality tourists”.