Notes on Bhutan, a country new to tourism

My wife and I recently took an extended vacation to Asia, and we spent the bulk of our time in the country of Bhutan. We were introduced to Bhutan as I had the pleasure of working with some Bhutanese in the Bahamas. As they shared their culture with us, we were intrigued to explore their country.

Bhutan, a small country in the Eastern Himalaya region of Asia, was basically isolated from the outside world and only opened up to tourism in 1974. It did not have access to the internet or television until 1999, so Bhutan is still adapting to the modern world.  

The Tachog Lhakhang Iron Chain Bridge in Paro, Bhutan
The Tachog Lhakhang Iron Chain Bridge in Paro, Bhutan

Despite being open to foreigners, the government is aware of the environmental impact tourists can have on Bhutan’s unique and virtually unspoiled landscape and culture. Therefore, it has restricted the level of tourist activity from the start, preferring higher-quality tourism. 

All tourists (group or individual) must travel on a planned, prepaid, guided package tour or custom-designed travel program. Most foreigners cannot travel independently in the kingdom. Arrangements must be made through an officially approved tour operator, either directly or through an overseas agent.

Depending on the season, the cost per day is US$200/US$250 minimum per person, which includes your guide, driver, car, meals, entry fees and basic hotel accommodations. There are additional charges for upgraded cars, hotels, etc. This daily minimum fee has limited tourism to those that can afford it; Bhutan is looking for high-value, low-impact tourists.

I thought I would share some of our observations:

  • Since tourists are required to have a guide and driver, we noticed numerous single travelers both male and female. With a guide and driver, many of the solo travelers we met said they felt safe and enjoyed having the guide as a companion during the trip.
  • My wife and I normally travel independently and plan all of the details and daily itineraries for our trips, but we both enjoyed having a guide and driver who took care of all of the minutiae. Spending a full day with locals certainly teaches you a lot about their culture; imagine what we learned after nine days. We also found them to be very genuine and caring, and this made for a carefree and stress-free trip.
  • We did notice what I would call hotel ratings inflation. A 5-star hotel in Bhutan would generally be a 3-plus to 4-star level in the North American market. While there are luxury resorts such as Aman (Six Senses soon will be opening properties in Bhutan), most other luxury hotels and resorts are not quite at the Western expectation of service levels quite yet, but they were still very nice and comfortable. We found all the staff very friendly and accommodating and genuine in their hospitality. The Bhutanese people are extremely friendly and are excited to share their culture and history with their visitors. They are very proud of their country and its history.
  • Bhutan was the country that started the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index rather than GDP.  The GNH index is based on nine domains such as health, psychological well-being, etc., which the government surveys to determine the happiness of its people.   
  • We were fortunate to be in Bhutan during one of its Buddhist festivals, which we thoroughly enjoyed and would highly recommend.
  • Bhutan is located in the Eastern Himalayas so the scenery is amazing. When in Bhutan, you need to spend time hiking and trekking. We were fortunate to find some off-the-beaten-path hikes to temples and monasteries. Make sure you allow time to hike and remember you are at high altitudes.

We had a great stay and I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to explore Bhutan before it changes too much as it is still somewhat in a time warp. For example, while they have only had television since 1999, the two most popular shows today are WWE and Ultimate Fight, so it is just a matter of time before Bhutan loses some of it naiveté. Don’t let the tour package discourage you from going, as we found the private tour to be the way to see Bhutan.