It has been a dream for Tanapron, 56, a teacher from Sing Buri vocational college in northern Thailand, to visit Bhutan, but she has not been able to because of the high tourist tariff charged by the government there.
“It’s beyond my means to go to Bhutan, since US$250 per night is expensive for me,” she said.
Bhutan charges $200-$250 (Bt5,850-Bt7,300) a person per night as a minimum daily package for tourists travelling in a group of three or more, depending on the month.
The package comprises a minimum of three-star accommodations, meals, a licensed Bhutanese guide, internal road transport, and camping equipment and haulage for trekking tours. The tariff also includes all internal taxes and charges.
Tanapron instead travels to countries offering cheaper packages, such as Nepal and India, on pilgrimage.
“But I still want to visit Bhutan for a pilgrimage if the tariff were lower,” she said.
Peace, harmony, happiness and pristine nature are other appealing aspects. About 10 Thais from Sing Buri have also been dreaming of visiting Bhutan for five years but could not because of the high tariff.
The visit to Thailand by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan in 2006 inspired some to visit his country.
“He smiled and was very friendly,” teacher Suwaree Yingnog said, adding that Bhutan is beautiful.
“I want to travel, see Bhutanese culture, religion and pay respects to the king,” she said.
The high tariff is deterring significant numbers of Thai tourists from travelling to Bhutan, said Druk Asia, Druk Air’s ticketing agent in Bangkok.
“More than half of Thais cancel trips to Bhutan every year solely because of the high tariff,” said Sontipat Supanosonti, chief executive officer of Druk Asia.
A few hundred Thais a year ask Druk Asia for a trip to Bhutan.
“But from more than a few hundred only 40-50 people take up the trip,” he said.
Compared with other places in the region, $250 a day makes Bhutan a much costlier travel destination. Eventually, it loses customers, since they choose to go elsewhere.
“Otherwise, the demand from Thais to visit Bhutan is definitely high, as they view Bhutan as a truly unique travel destination,” Sontipat said.
The median income in Thailand is lower than countries like Singapore, he said.
“People with lower incomes cannot afford the $250-a-night trip,” he said, adding that Bhutan should lower its tariff for Thais to a moderate level for median-income people.
Influx could widen
That would increase the influx of Thai tourists by 20-30 per cent in a year.
However, Bhutan should be mindful of lowering the tariff too low, he said.
Potential tourists need to be educated about what the $250 entails, since many are unaware, he added.
But the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) maintains that the tariff is not high for a country aiming at high-end tourism.
“The tariff is actually derived taking into account factors like inflation and ground costs,” said Damcho Rinzin, a TCB marketing officer.
The goal is “high value, low impact”, trying to attract mindful and responsible tourists. Considering Bhutan’s cultural and environmental carrying capacity, the tariff cannot be lowered, he said.
“Though Thailand is a potential market for us, Bhutan is a niche destination and cannot afford to open up to under-managed tourism.”
Mass tourism is unhealthy for both the tourists and the host, he said.
As of last August, Japanese tourists topped the chart of visitors to Bhutan, followed by those from the United States and China. Thailand ranked fourth with 1,825 visitors.
Many like Tanapron look forward to Bhutan reviewing its tariff some day.
“I wish to visit whenever the tariff is lowered,” she said. “Otherwise my wish to visit Bhutan will remain a life-long dream.”
Courtesy: The Nation, Thailand.