Last week my son came for a short visit. We spent 4 wonderful days together and he was off to rendezvous with friends in neighboring Sikkim for a trek. His visit certainly shed some light on what it means and what it takes to visit Bhutan. All visitors need a visa, for most this means a tourist visa which is arranged through a travel agency/guide service. The cost is currently $250/day for travelers from the US. The price does include basic room, board, and transportation costs as well as a substantial tariff paid to the government. Many tourists pay for upgraded accommodations and travel as well. Tourism is good business for the country. The government makes money directly and the tour and travel industry brings money into the economy as well. The job of tourist guide is very sought after and the process of becoming a guide is challenging for sure.
Bhutanese citizens can have visitors and arrange for their visa as their guest. These visitors are personal friends, family, etc and do not pay the tariff. We had to submit a fairly extensive application well in advance of Bridger's visit but all worked out and he was issued a visa for his stay. He was delayed on the east coast of the US due to a late winter snowstorm and finally arrived in Paro 48 hrs later than his original plans. After I picked him up we were looking at his travel document. Tourists, foreign visitors, can travel between Paro (airport) and Thimphu (capitol). In order to go beyond Thimphu they must have a travel permit. All this had been applied for and we had the permit, however the passport number on the document matched my son’s but the name was Hassam somebody from South Africa with a more extensive itinerary. So we spent an hour on Monday morning at immigration. They recognized the error and explained that the software cross references passport numbers. Amazing that a resident of South Africa had a passport number which was the same as my son’s and was traveling in Bhutan at the same time. After getting all that straightened out we were able to travel to Punakha and Gaselo.
One point of all this is to enlighten folks as to what is involved in a visit to Bhutan. Another point might be to look at what an amazing opportunity it is to spend a year here. We all have work permits which are identity cards which function in lieu of a citizenship cards. I no longer need to show my passport while traveling in Bhutan, my work permit is sufficient. However, we also need travel permits if we are going to travel out of our district and to districts other than Thimphu and Paro. The opportunities opened when one is able to travel alone without a group, a tour, or a guide are amazing and certainly one of the reasons to pursue something as crazy as volunteering to teach for a year in Bhutan.