December is actually a low season time
The month of December is usually regarded as a low season for tourism in Bhutan, but the country is in the midst of a huge rush of regional tourists coming in from India and also Bangladesh.
The main reason seems to be rumors and misleading news articles in outlets like the Times of India and Conde Naste Traveler where they say that Indian tourists may have to go with the USD 250 (Nu 17,000) per day package from next year, like third country tourists.
This news has been combined with other rumors that the SDF for Indian tourists will be Nu 4,000 a day from January 2020, and it has also led to influx of tourists from Bangladesh as well to beat the rumored SDF date.
However, the fact is that the SDF fee is expected to come into effect only by around July 2019 and the proposed fee structure is Nu 500 to Nu 3500 per day. One proposal is to make the SDF fee 20 to 25 percent of the USD 65 SDF for tariff paying tourists which would be around Nu 1000 plus per day for regional tourists.
The other reason according to tourists that the paper talked to is that the last week of December is a holiday season in India coinciding with Christmas and the New Year break.
The big rush noticeably started from 23rd December when around 1,800 to 1,500 tourists a day approached the Regional Immigration Office in Phuentsholing for permits.
This has now increased to around 2,000 tourists a day from Friday onwards in Phuentsholing.
This does not include many who are also flying in by air via Delhi and Kolkata.
The immigration office in Phuentsholing is working overtime to deal with the large numbers well past the 4 pm closing time.
Even the immigration service office in Chubachu which gives passes for destinations beyond Paro and Thimphu to places like Haa, Punakha, Wangduephodrang etc. are overloaded.
An immigration officer in Chubachu said that he had not seen such crowds even during the peak season.
Subash Chandra Das, 49, from Kolkata was lined up in the Chubachu line along with his wife and children. He said that he is a tour operator who has come on his first ever visit to Bhutan with his family and also brought a tour group of 59 people.
He said, “The main factor is that we heard that Bhutan will start levying the USD 250 tariff per day for Indian tourists from January 2020 and another reason is that this is the holiday season in India.”
Subash said that he read about the tariff issue in the Times of India paper in Kolkata.
However, when the reporter told him that the actual SDF maybe around Nu 1,000 a day per tourist then he said, “1,000 a day is affordable and tourists will come.”
S. Paul, 58, from Kolkata said that he has come with his family of eight members and this is also his first trip to Bhutan.
He said he heard that from next year Bhutan would charge Indian tourists Nu 4,000 a day and so he wanted to come before that.
He said that the other reason for him to come is that the winters are a time of holiday with even the kids free from the schools in the hill stations and so the family wanted to spend winetr in Bhutan.
Paul said that normally during the other holidays the family travelled to Darjeeling, Sikkim, Manali and other Indian hill stations.
Akib, 22, from Bangladesh has come with his four friends. He said that the main reason that he has come is because he also heard that a heavy tax would be imposed from next year.
Akib said he asked the Indian side of the gate in Phuentsholing on how many Bangladeshi tourists had entered Bhutan recently and he was told around 500 or so.
However, the SDF fee does not seem to be the sole reasons as there were tourists who learned about a proposed SDF fee only after coming to Bhutan.
Pratik, 22, from Delhi said that he did not hear about any SDF fee until coming to Bhutan and his trip had been pre-planned. He said that the plan was to spend Christmas and the New Year in Bhutan.
The husband and wide couple Manas,55, and Tanuja ,52, from Odisha also said the same.
Bhoomika, 20, from Karnataka in India said she is a student and travelling solo to Bhutan as she heard that Bhutan is one of the safest places for women to travel to. She too had not heard about any SDF fee.
The above shows that while there are tourists mainly coming to avoid the SDF fee the combination of rumors and misreporting by elements of the Indian press have led them to falsely believe that Indian tourists have to either take the USD 250 package or pay upto Nu 4000 a day per person.
The other element beyond SDF is that Bhutan is now not only getting flooded with regional tourists during the peak season but it is also being seen as a destination during the winter break in India.
As an Indian tour guide himself said even Nu 1,000 a day would be affordable for regional middle class tourists. The SDF already seems to be having the impact of increasing the brand value of Bhutan as an exclusive destination among the large middle class in India and Bangladesh too.
However, the Hotel and Restaurant Association of Bhutan Chairman, Sonam Wangchuk, does not agree.
He said the large numbers of tourists coming recently to escape the SDF next year means that they will not come again and that they find the SDF fee unaffordable.
Sonam said that the SDF fee even if it is Nu 1,000 a day would be expensive for an average family of regional tourists as the cost would shoot up to Nu 25,000 in a standard visit.
He said that the HRAB supports all other measures to regulate regional tourists from vehicle fees, to compulsory tour guides and others but the SDF would have a negative impact in the arrivals of tourists.
Sonam said that there would be sharp fall in the numbers next year once SDF comes in.
However, tourism observers feel that while there may be a dip in the numbers next year once SDF fee comes in the longer run, the numbers will go up and this number will have a bigger earning potential for hotels.