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How can I visit Bhutan? What do I do?

One of the most frequent questions I get is about how one can visit Bhutan without paying the usual tourist tarrif, or about volunteering in Bhutan. So here is some information which I hope will be helpful in answering this question.

Visitors come to Bhutan in one of the following ways:

  1. As a tourist
  2. You are an official guest of the government
  3. You work for an international aid/development agency operating in Bhutan (UN organisations and the like, and also international volunteers through organisations like VSO, VSA and JOCV).
  4. You are on a short term consultancy for the government
  5. In a few special cases, (eg host families of Bhutanese students abroad, "friends of Bhutan") visit without paying the tourist tarriff. These special cases are considered on an individual basis.
  6. And finally, you are illegally in the country
If you fall in categories ii, iv or v, your counterparts in Bhutan will advise you and process your travel formalities.

VISITING BHUTAN AS A TOURIST
Contrary to what a lot of people believe, there is no limit to the number of visitors allowed to enter Bhutan. The tourism policy of Bhutan uses pricing to control the number of visitors to Bhutan. The official rate for visting Bhutan is about US$200 per person per day. The policy also requires that all foreign tourists to Bhutan organise their visit through a licensed Bhutanese tour operator. The objective of this policy is maximization of foreign revenue from tourism with minimal impacts on the culture and environment. Since Bhutan is such a small place, geographically and demographically, uncontrolled tourism would have tremendous impacts.

Is it expensive?
The US$200 also entitles you to accomodation, meals, transportation (not public transport but either a bus, 4WD or a car), entry fees for museums etc., and a licensed guide during your visit. The tour operator also pays a fraction of this fee as royalty to the Royal Government. What you get in return is the privelege of visiting a place where there are no "throngs of tourists", where the environment still in very good shape and the culture vibrant. Dont just take my word for it though - Conde Nast travel magazine thought that Bhutan was the 4th best country to visit in the world in 2000.

Your visa fee is a one time payment of US$20 that is paid on arrival. There is no separate application fee. Please note that the visa has to be processed prior to your arrival. ( I found it funny that the US embassy in Bangkok charged me a $20 'entry fee' in addition to the $40 application fee. Some sort of reciprocity thingy because we charge the $20 fee on arrival). I think most average tourists in North America and Europe (including Bhutanese visitors/business people) will end up paying more that $200 a day for room, food, sight seeing, transport.

Note: Because of bilateral agreements, Indian nationals carrying Indian passports do not need to pay the US$200 fee. I would still recommend that you to contact a tour operator and work out some amount because it will be easier for you when arranging accomodations and transport.

GETTING TO BHUTAN
So now that you know how much it costs and decided that you still want to visit Bhutan, the next step is to contact a licensed travel/tour agent in Bhutan. Prior to the establishment of Druknet, (Bhutan's only Internet Service Provider) in 1999, it was probably much easier to contact operators in North America, Europe and Japan who arranged everything with their counterparts in Bhutan. Now with the easy internet access, you can directly communicate with operators in Bhutan.

You should have also decided by now about the type of a visit you want - trekking, cultural sites, cultural events, a nature tour, rafting, kayaking,. What about DXing (HAM radio!) or even a fertility tour? See what the agent can offer!

Once you contact a Bhutanese tour operator, they will make all the necessary arrangements for you from scheduling your visit and itinerary to processing your visa and your flight into Bhutan from the nearest airports. (Only one airline, Royal Bhutan Airlines also known as "Druk Air", provides flight services into Bhutan).

Most travel/tour agents in Bhutan should be able to provide you with either cultural tours, trekking or a combination of both or some other specialised tours like, bird watching, rafting and kayaking. Either way, they will ensure that you receive your minimum tarriff entitlements as per the Tourism Authority of Bhutan's guidelines.

Here are some select Bhutanese tour companies that I can recommend:

  • Bhutan heritage tours: in addition to the regular fare also specialises in nature and birding.
  • bhutan scenic: Discover-Explore-Experience-Enjoy Bhutan with BhutanScenicTours
  • geobhutan: specialized in tours, treks, bird watching and environmental tours
  • atlas tours: tour and travel agency in Bhutan. located in bhutan
  • etho metho: one of the oldest and larget tour operators in Bhutan.
  • Yu druk : adventure, cultural and trekking
  • bootan.com an interesting site with lots of information about culture, news and travelto Bhutan.
... and here are some select tour companies operating from abroad  
  • Golden Hill Travel a UK based tour operator offering small group and individual travel to Bhutan.
If you're into photography here's some information about photographing in Bhutan.

VOLUNTEERING
If you want to volunteer, you will most likely need some technical or specialised skill (IT, medicine, engineering, law etc.) that is not available or is lacking in the country. Most volunteers come through the various international organisations that operate in Bhutan. The way I understand the process is that any government agency which requires/desires some technical expertise for some development program will place a request with one of these organisations, who then try to find a suitable candidate. Regarding how these organisations go about selecting candidates and the areas they focus on - I have no clue.

As far as I know, these international volunteer organisations currently have operations in Bhutan:

  1. Japan Overseas Cooperation Vounteers (Japan)
  2. United Nations Volunteers international website
      - UNV in Bhutan Bhutan program website
  3. Volunteer Services Abroad (New Zealand)
  4. Volunteer Services Overseas (UK)
      -  VSO Bhutan profile (I think VSO has stopped its operations in Bhutan)


all images thinley namgyel