A standard operating procedure (SOP) was released by the National Assembly for the payment of Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) by regional tourists.
The rationale behind the SOP is to facilitate and guide the payment of SDF by regional tourists, define the roles and responsibilities of relevant stakeholders and to enhance service delivery to regional tourists as per the document.
Here on, the SOP is applicable to registered Bhutanese tour operators, TCB certified accommodation, regional tourists, Department of Immigration (DOI) under the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs, Department of Revenue and Customs (DRC) under Ministry of Finance and the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB).
The SOP will be valid until the full roll out of the guidelines for the Management of Regional Tourism 2020, after which the provisions of the guidelines is expected to guide the management of the regional tourists including the levy of SDF.
SDF applicable to regional tourists from three countries: Bangladesh, India and the Maldives have been set to an approximate rate of 25 percent of the SDF applicable to international tourists per person per night which converts to Nu 1,200.
In line with the commencement of the Tourism Levy Exemption (Amendment) Act 2020, any application for permit to enter Bhutan received on or after the start date shall be liable for SDF.
While the flat SDF rate is Nu 1,200 for the regional tourists, there are many discount provisions on the SDF in line with TRR 2017. Children under the age of 5 or below are exempted from SDF payment, and the same will not be eligible for group size discounts and duration discounts, while a child between the age of 5 and 12 years is entitled a 50 percent discount on the SDF. Students are eligible to a discount of 25 percent if they are 25 years or below- provided they submit valid student identification document.
A discount of 50 percent on SDF to be provided to tourist(s) who spend more than eight nights. For those tourists residing in the country for more than 14 nights are exempted from SDF charges, while in a group of 11-15 tourists, one person shall be entitled to a discount of 50 percent on the SDF and for a group of 16 persons and more; one person shall be entitled to 100 percent waiver on the SDF.
If the group consists of 27 people or more, the group shall not be entitled to one and a half or two separate discounts unless they belong to two separate groups. Children and students will not be eligible for duration discounts.
According to the SOP, except within the first interior checkpoint of the border towns, a tourist travelling beyond the first interior checkpoint in Phuentsholing shall be exempted from paying SDF for one-night halt each during entry as well as exit.
There are two permit types placed as an interim measure until the enforcement of the Guideline for Management of Regional Tourism; 1) E-Permit- which is expected to be applied through the ground handler including registered tour operator and TCB certified hotel and 2) Walk-in permit, which will be applied by the tourist directly to the Department of Immigration on arrival by road at Phuentsholing and by air at the Paro International Airport.
Registered Bhutanese tour operators and TCB certified hotels can apply for the e-permit on behalf of the regional tourists which can be done via a visa online system at http://tashel.gov.bt with a copy of passport having a minimum of 6 months validity as is the current practice. The applicable deposit will be transferred to TCB’s account. The application approval is said to take around 72 hours, as the TCB reviews the application to either refuse or endorse to DOI. In case of application refusal, the applicant may resubmit to TCB.
DOI may approve or refuse the application endorsed by the TCB as per the Immigration Rules and Regulations. In case of application rejection, the applicant can resubmit incorporating the remarks made by DOI. TCB shall issue the e-permit to the application via online system if approved by DOI. As is the current practice, the MoF will be the recipient of the SDF payment from TCB’s remittance every month.
There are other procedures in line with the document for amendment in case of delayed arrival and early departure. The applicants are expected to notify TCB at the soonest in writing about any delayed arrival with supporting documents such as ticket copy, letter from airlines and entry seal of DOI.
TCB is expected to facilitate the amendment and forward to DOI for approval. TCB will also facilitate the amendment and refund of SDF for the duration not stayed in the country. In terms of early departure, the applicants will be required to notify TCB in writing about early departure with the above-mentioned supporting documents.
An applicant may submit application for permit extension to TCB in writing along with the detailed itinerary of extended nights and deposit applicable SDF into TCB’s account- a copy of which will be submitted to TCB for verification.
The application will be facilitated for permit extension by TCB and forward to DOI for approval.
In case of postponement or cancellation of tour, the applicant is required to submit an application of the same to TCB in writing along with valid supporting documents which will be facilitated by TCB for refund procedure upon verification within 3 working days.
There on, TCB will cancel the tour group or pax individually as per the application after refund has been made to the applicant as per the SOP.
In terms of walk-in permit, the applicant will have to report to DOI on arrival by road at Phuentsholing while those who board via air will have to report at the Paro International Airport along with a copy of the passport having a minimum validity of 6-months, voter’s card and 2 copies of passport photographs.
Indian tourists can either pay the SDF in Rupees or USD in cash, as for tourists from Bangladesh and the Maldives, they have to pay in USD. As per the SOP, DRC will designate officials at Phuentsholing and Paro International Airport to collect the SDF payment to be submitted monthly to MoF.
In the event of refusal of walk-in permit in line with Immigration Rules and Regulations, DOI and DRC will facilitate the refund of SDF payment to the regional tourist.
The walk-in permit only allows regional tourists to travel to Thimphu and Paro, for any travel beyond those points will require the tourist to apply for route permit at DOI in Thimphu.
In case of amendment of approved walk-in permit in accordance with early departure, the applicant will have to notify DOI at Thimphu in writing about early departure with supporting documents such as ticket copy, letter from airlines and entry seal of DOI.
DOI is expected to facilitate the amendment of the permit and accordingly advise the designated officers of DRC at Phuentsholing or Paro International Airport depending on the port exit to facilitate refund of SDF to the applicant for the duration not stayed in the country.
Amendment in regard to permit extension entails the applicant to apply for permit extension to DOI in Thimphu in writing along with the detailed itinerary of extended nights and pay applicable SDF to DOI.
DOI may refuse or approve the application for permit extension. In the event of application refusal, DOI shall facilitate the refund SDF to the applicant. TCB may propose for the amendment of the SOP in consultation with relevant stakeholders, when deemed necessary.