Ending decades of free entry to Indian tourists visiting Bhutan, the government in Thimphu has decided to levy a daily ₹1,200 ($17) fee for “regional tourists” from India, the Maldives and Bangladesh, beginning July 2020. The fee, called a Sustainable Development Fee (SDF), is meant to help the government deal with burgeoning numbers in tourist traffic, which it is seeking to regulate through a new tourism policy.
The decision was passed by the National Assembly on Tuesday as a ‘Tourism Levy and Exemption Bill of Bhutan’, 2020. The SDF is considerably lower than the $65 charged to other foreign tourists, who are also charged a compulsory flat “cover charge” of $250 per day.
Indians mainly travel to the more developed western region of Bhutan. In a move to promote tourism in Bhutan’s eastern region as well, the government has decided to drop SDF charges for tourists visiting 11 of 20 total districts that fall in the east from Trongsa to Trashigang. Children from India, Maldives and Bangladesh under the age of 5 will not have to pay the levy and those between 6 and 12 years will be required to pay only ₹600.
Bhutan’s Tourism Council Director Dorji Dhradul said the idea of the SDF was to provide better facilities for regional tourists.
“The levy of SDF to regional tourists will help in ensuring an exclusive experience to all tourists which is the intent of our tourism policy of high value, low volume,” Mr. Dhradul told The Hindu.
Tour operators unhappy
However, regional tour operators, especially from West Bengal have expressed concerns that the SDF will have dampening effect on numbers, and impact the heavy rush during the October “Puja season”.
When asked, the MEA said the fee was “nominal” and had been discussed with the Bhutanese government in the last few months. Bhutan’s Foreign Minister Tandi Dorji is understood to have discussed the proposal “in general, without specifics” with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar during his visit to Delhi in November 2019.
“Bhutanese authorities have assured that tourists from India would not be inconvenienced in the course of the implementation of the new regulation,” official sources said.
A senior official said, however, that the government has asked the Bhutanese government to make an effort to publicise the new rules in India before they come into effect in July 2020, as is anticipated. “If there is confusion about the provisions, it will cause problems to both sides.”
New Delhi’s hesitation also comes as the new SDF, while a seemingly small amount compared to the fees charged to other nationalities, could be seen as a way of making Indian tourists feel unwelcome. In the past year, Bhutanese newspapers have often complained about Indian tourists who don’t pay heed to local customs and picnickers who litter the country’s pristine environment.
In 2018, of the 2,74,000 tourists visiting Bhutan, the council estimated that about 2,00,000 were from the region, of which about 1,80,000 were from India. In contrast to other international tourists, who pay $250 (Approx. ₹18,000) as a minimum charge per day per person, which includes a $65 a day “Sustainable Development Fee”, as well as a $40 visa charge, tourists from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives had so far paid no fees, and were able to cross over without visas, something that is now set to change.