Nestled into the monumental Himalayas is the mystical Land of the Thunder Dragon—Bhutan. Just half the size of Indiana, the tiny landlocked country is home to dramatic landscapes, historic Buddhist monasteries, and some of the happiest people in the world (the country famously measures its Gross National Happiness), all of which would seem to make it an ideal tourist destination. So why don’t more people flock to Bhutan? Well, for starters, its borders weren’t open to foreigners until 1974, when the government sought to promote the then-isolated country’s unique traditions to the world, as well as create a new source of revenue. And, recognizing the negative effects of tourism on its culture and the environment, Bhutan regulated tourism, adopting a “high value, low impact” policy. Thus, there are strict rules to follow when planning a trip to the country. Here, we tell you the five things you need to know in order to book a vacation that’s sure to be one of your most special yet.
1. You must book your travel through an official tour operator.
The Bhutanese government requires tourists to book their trips through one of the hundreds of official tour operators governed by the Tourism Council of Bhutan. In recent years, tourists have mistakenly booked trips with unofficial tour companies—you can find a full list of licensed operators here, and you can also call the Tourism Council to confirm your tour’s validity.
2. All international visitors—except those from India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives—need visas.
Visas must be acquired through tour operators for a fee of $40 per guest. You’ll have to send a copy of your photo page to the organizer of your tour, who will then submit it to the Tourism Council. Visas won’t be processed until your trip has been paid for in full, including the visa fee. Speaking of fees…
3. There is a mandatory daily fee for tourists.
It’s called the minimum daily package. Every visitor to Bhutan must pay at least $200 per day in the low season (January, February, June, July, August, and December) and $250 per day in the high season (March, April, May, September, October, and November). The package covers lodgings in a three-star accommodation, all meals, an official tour guide, all internal transportation, camping equipment for treks, as well as all taxes and a royalty that helps sustain Bhutan’s free education and healthcare, and promotes the growth of infrastructure. Upgrades to four- and five-star hotels will, of course, incur extra fees, as will the addition of certain excursions and activities.
4. There are only two airlines that fly into Bhutan.
They’re Drukair and Bhutan Airlines, and they typically fly from cities in Thailand, India, and Singapore. The only international airport is Paro, which often has weather delays, so be sure to monitor the status of your flight closely. There are also three land crossings at the border with India at Phuentsholing, Gelephu, and Samdrup Jongkhar. As with almost all aspects of a vacation to Bhutan, travel plans must be booked through your tour operator.
5. Summer is monsoon season.
When planning a trip to Bhutan, consider the seasons. Spring and fall are often considered the best times to visit, as summer brings heavy rains, and winter weather closes some of the mountainous roads.
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