Tourism in Bhutan began in 1974, when the Bhutanese government, in an effort to increase revenue and promote the country’s unique culture and traditions, opened the remote country to foreigners. During that first year, only 287 tourists visited Bhutan. In 1992, the number rose to 2,850, and it increased even more dramatically to 7,158 in 1999.
Bhutan restricts tourist numbers primarily because the government is acutely aware of the environmental impacts of tourism and the unique biological wealth of the country. Travel to Bhutan is highly regulated under the policy “High Value, Low Impact Tourism.”
Tourists mainly visit the capital of Thimpu, as well as Paro, a city in the western part of the country near India, and the Tiger’s Nest, which is a famous Buddhist temple (photograph at end of post). Druk Air used to be the only airline operating flights to and from Bhutan, but the country is now serviced by Bhutan Airlines as well.
It is quite difficult and expensive to get a visa to Bhutan. Only citizens of India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives are allowed to enter Bhutan without a visa. Foreign tourists must use a licensed Bhutanese tour operator to arrange practically everything about their visit to Bhutan, including what lodging they stay in, and where they travel and with whom. Outside of Paro and Thimpu, the entirety of Bhutan is considered a “Restricted Area” for foreigners, who need special permits to travel further.
A daily fee of $250 is charged during tourist high season, which is decreased to $200/day during the low season. The minimum daily package required for visa processing covers accommodation, food, guide, and a vehicle with a driver. Part of this fee goes towards free education, free healthcare, and poverty alleviation in Bhutan.
The only way you can enter Bhutan without a visa (and without being a citizen of the countries mentioned above), is by receiving a formal invitation from a “citizen of some standing” or a volunteer organization. In addition, those who come as guests of the Bhutanese government go through a different visa application process. I believe the latter applies to students who study in Bhutan through SFS because we are partnered with a government agency, the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment.