Tourism in Bhutan is managed through partnership of government regulators and private travel agencies under a policy summed up by the mantra ‘high value, low impact’. There is no restriction on visitor numbers; however, there is a minimum daily tariff fixed by the government. Also your visit must be arranged through an officially approved tour operator, either directly or through an overseas agent. By dealing through an overseas agent you will avoid complicated payment procedures and also have a home-based contact in case of queries or special needs. On the other hand, if you deal directly with a Bhutanese tour operator you will have more scope to individualize your itinerary, though you’ll spend considerable time sending emails and faxes, and learn more than you want to about international bank transfers.
The daily tariff for tourists visiting in a group of three people or more is US$250 per day (US$ 200 per day in the low season of July to August, whether you stay in hotels (a ‘cultural tour’) or go trekking.
The daily tariff includes all of your accommodation, food, land transport within Bhutan, services of guides and porters, supply of pack animals on treks, and cultural programs as appropriate. It also includes a US$65 tax, which is used by the government to fund infrastructure, education, health and other programs.
The tour rate applies uniformly irrespective of location or the type of accommodation asked for or provided (with the exception of several premium hotels). This clause means that if things get busy you may get bumped from a better hotel to one of lesser quality, and you have no recourse.
Individual tourists and couples are subject to a surcharge, over and above the daily rate. The surcharge may also be applied if a member of a group arrives or departs on a separate flight from the rest of the party. The surcharge is US$40 per night for one person and US$30 per night per person for a group of two people. Visitors qualifying for any kind of discount still have to pay this small-group surcharge.
Most tour operators expect you to pay separately for all drinks, including liquor, beer, mineral water and bottled soft drinks. You’ll also have to pay extra for laundry, riding horses, and cultural splurges such as a Bhutanese hot-stone bath. There are endless potential options that cost extra but provide a means to individualize your itinerary: expert guides, special permits, luxury vehicles, cultural shows and courses, special food and premium accommodation. The availability of these extras will depend on the tour operator and will involve investigating several operators and negotiating prices.
Tipping is officially discouraged in Bhutan, but it’s becoming a common practice and it’s OK to do so if you want to reward good service.
You will usually be accompanied throughout your visit to Bhutan by the same tour guide and probably the same driver. Though it’s against the official DOT policy, these people expect a tip at the end of the trip. Many leaders on group tours take up a collection at the conclusion of the trip and hand it over in one packet. With a large group this can be a substantial amount and the practice has created high expectations on the part of Bhutanese guides.
If you’ve been trekking, it’s appropriate to tip the guide, cook and waiter. Horsemen also expect tips, but this can be minimal if they are the owners of the horses or yaks and are making money by hiring out their animals. The stakes go up, however, if they have been especially helpful with camp chores and on the trail.
At the time of research, the few Bhutan National Bank ATMs could only be used by local customers. The bank does have plans, however, for extending the network and providing credit-card facilities.
If you plan to make a major purchase, for example textiles or art, consider bringing US dollars in cash. Most shops will accept this, and it can save you the hassle of exchanging a large quantity of money in advance and then attempting to change it back if you don’t find the exact piece you were looking for.
You should not count on using a credit card in Bhutan. Credit cards are accepted at the government-run Handicrafts Emporium, a few other handicraft shops and some of the larger hotels in Thimphu, but these transactions do take time. The credit-card companies charge high fees and the verification office is only open from 9am to 5pm. This precludes paying your hotel bill at night or when you check out early in the morning. The Bhutan National Bank has plans for rolling out point of sale credit-card facilities, so check with your tour agent for the latest news.
You can cash traveler’s cheques at any bank, most hotels and the foreign-exchange counter at the airport. There are bank charges of 1% for cheque encashment. You should carry only well-known brands such as American Express, Visa, Thomas Cook, Citibank or Barclays. There is no replacement facility for traveller’s cheques in Bhutan.