“You are most welcome to come to Bhutan,” Prime Minister Lotay Tshering told a room full of foreign visitors, “but the visitor must take it as an educational and experiential visit.”
In Bhutan, that means handing over an extra US$200 per person, per day to enter the country, on top of its US$40 Visa. Tshering notes that the new fee, launched just before the country reopened to international visitors in September, is a keeping-up-with-the-times increase from the daily US$65 charge it hadn’t changed since 1991. While that fee included guides, hotels and meals – this new one does not.
“High value, low volume” is Bhutan’s tourism motto. The government figures if you’ve come all this way, you might as well help the developing country pay its bills: The visitor tax (called a Sustainable Development Fee) will fund healthcare, education and environmental infrastructure projects because, as Tshering notes: “each and every Bhutanese is a host.” The funds are also considered essential to sustain its distinct and vibrant Buddhist culture, which is openly and happily shared with newcomers.
“For high, net-worth travellers it’s a drop in the bucket,” Toronto-based travel agent Julia Hayhurst says. “But for a lot of people, an extra $200, well, that’s your meals for the day. … It will be an interesting test to see if other countries follow suit. Fewer visitors means less impact on the environment and the visitors that are going will have deeper pockets with more money to invest.”
When pressed on the high fees back in September, Tshering stood firm. “I want every visitor to think that even though it was a little bit more expensive, that it was worth it,” he said.
While Bhutan appears to be repositioning itself as a high-end bucket list destination, right up there with Galapagos and Antarctica excursions, it isn’t the only place charging extra for the benefit of crossing its borders.
Galapagos, for example, requires visitors to cover the national park fee of US$100/adult (US$50 for children) in cash upon arrival at the airport.
In January, the infamously over-visited city of Venice will charge visitors who only want to spend a day wandering its alleys and gliding along its canals. Daytrippers will need to apply online to enter and pay a 3- to 10-euro per person fee (the cost fluctuates depending on the season). Overnight visitors already pay a five-euro tax. Amsterdam has been taxing daytripping cruise visitors eight euros to enter since 2018.
In November, 2023, a mandatory visitor tax to enter most European countries comes into effect. But even that charge is just seven euros. The European Travel Information and Authorisation System says the fee will help with security costs. Thailand has also announced its plans for a visitor tax of 300 baht (about $11) per person later this year.
But for many travellers, most tourist taxes are nominal and often hidden in hotel fees and visa costs. A 2021 report on visa fees, published in the journal Science Direct, notes that travellers should also put these extra costs in perspective. Titled “The Global Visa Cost Divide: How and Why the Price for Travel Permits Varies Worldwide,” the 14-page report revealed an “injustice in the right to travel.” In particular, the study notes, citizens of the Global South, Sub-Saharan African countries and Southern and Central Asia pay more of their income than those in the wealthier Global North, where “tourist visas usually cost much less than a single day of average income.”
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