Why Bhutan Belongs on Your Travel List Now?
It’s been decades since the fourth king of Bhutan came up with the notion of gross national happiness. But that’s still what comes to mind when most of us think of the country. Even though it’s sort of silly, it proved to be successful marketing, on top of the inherent mystique and allure of this Himalayan nation that was isolated from the wider world for much of the 20th century.
People want to see this “last Shangri-La,” preferably before it changes much more. But that’s not so easy to do. That king, who was then 17, was also prescient in his embrace of high-value, low-volume tourism. The visa application process is cumbersome, there’s a requirement that all visitors book their trip with a licensed Bhutanese tour operator and have local guides at all times, and there’s a minimum per diem of $200 or $250 per person, depending on the season.
That’s actually quite reasonable, as it covers all meals, guides, drivers and accommodation at basic hotels, plus it funds education, health care and infrastructure for the Bhutanese people. (You’ll pay hundreds more at five-star hotels.) It was enough to keep the backpacker set from descending—there are no cafes hawking banana pancakes or by-the-pound laundries.
That doesn’t mean it never gets crowded. Especially in this age of instability, angst and violence, a remote, peaceful Buddhist kingdom has an understandable appeal. The main sites get busy in the spring and autumn, making winter the time to come, says Mark Wright, the general manager of the exquisite Gangtey Lodge. It’s far milder than you might expect, with clear sunny skies and warm afternoons, and hotels are nearly empty. “And it’s half price.”