2024 will mark the 50th anniversary of the opening of Bhutan to foreign travelers, and in that relatively short time it has been one of the least visited great places in the world. Bhutan has always been a true “Bucket List” destination for select niches of travelers, including romantics, nature lovers, the spiritually inclined, and that enviable group who has been “everywhere else.” But after a total pandemic shutdown, Bhutan has gone prime time, re-emerging with new hotels, activities, travel options and revamped tourism policies that make the logistically challenging destination easier to visit than ever before.
In an increasingly ubiquitous and globalized world, amidst artificial cities full of the same stores and restaurants found all over the planet, uniqueness and authenticity stand out in travel more than ever, and many things make this small country (the size of Switzerland, in turn the size of West Virginia) truly unique. It’s the world’s only Buddhist monarchy, the only country entirely contained within the Himalayas and unlike many newcomers to the sustainability trend, has a lengthy green history that has made it the first carbon-neutral country on earth. Bhutan famously measures its domestic success with a Gross National Happiness index and is one of the happiest country on earth. It has the highest unclimbed peaks in the world, along with tropical climate valleys producing everything from coconuts to mangoes to oranges. It is legendarily home to the Yeti, or Abominable Snowman, but for sure it is home to a shocking array of wildlife, such as Bengal tigers, leopards, elephants, red panda, monkeys, black bears, and the national animal, the rare takin, a sort of sheep or goat meets musk ox.
Below the high snowcapped peaks, it is warm, lush and very green, and some think Bhutan was the inspiration for the novel and film Shangri La, as it is a true hidden Himalayan paradise.
There are many good reasons to visit Bhutan in the near future, but here are my top five.
1. It Just Got Easier (and Cheaper): Until recently, American tourists were required to go through special tour operators and book entire pre-paid itineraries, with a minimum daily spend, in order to get a visa (in turn, you cannot buy plane tickets into Bhutan without a visa). There are still a lot of rules, such as that you need to be with a guide almost the entire time, but the booking process has become more transparent and simplified, and you can go directly through hotels or a growing number of North American or Bhutanese tour operators. The daily spending requirement is gone, and just this month (September 2023), the daily Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) was cut in half for the next four years, immediately saving most visitors a hundred bucks a day per person, or about two thousand bucks on the typical couples trip. The dollar is also very strong against the local currency, the Bhutanese Ngultrum (BTN), worth 10-20% more right now versus the last pre-pandemic year, 2019.
Despite the incredibly low cost of living (you can buy a beer for less than 75 cents), the international brand luxury hotels charge just as much here as they would in the Caribbean or elsewhere, over a thousand a night. For this reason, Bhutan is definitely not known as a budget destination, but if you opt for 3-star lodging, you can do a trip for as little as $300 a day, including lodging, a full-time guide, driver, meals – and even the $100 per day SDF. There are few desirable travel destinations where that is possible, and in most popular tourism spots, just the hotel will eat that entire budget. The new tourism rules also allow for homestays and farmstays, instead of previous requirements that dollar paying guests use 3-Star or higher hotels, increasing the possibilities for lower cost travel.
But most Americans who visit are going the luxury route, and for that there are tons of great options, including several brand-new ones. The Bhutan Tourism board just joined the Virtuoso luxury travel consortium, connecting them with thousands of the world’s best travel advisors (travel agents). That includes most major US based high-end travel agencies, as well as most of the luxury hotels within Bhutan, giving those advisors access to extra benefits when booking their clients that travelers won’t get on their own. Simply calling your travel agent is the easiest way to do Bhutan (read more about why for the best travel you should always use a travel agent – even when you don’t think you need one – here).
You can also book your trip through the global luxury hotel operators in Bhutan (Aman Resorts, COMO resorts, Six Senses and most recently, &Beyond). But in addition, many top tour operators such as Micato Safaris (also a Virtuoso member and the only record 10-time winner of Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best award) and Smithsonian Journeys are offering bespoke trips to Bhutan (for the former, in conjunction with neighboring India, where they are the standout tour operator).
Scheduled group tours, which are turnkey in terms of planning and often more affordable, even at the luxury level, are also available from some of the best escorted travel providers, such as Abercrombie & Kent and National Geographic Expeditions. For many of the international hotel brands, the Bhutan strategy has been to open multiple small lodges in different parts of the country and sell them in combination as circuits or journeys. But this locks you into a single brand, and since you have to use a guide and driver regardless, personally I think it is better to mix and match and include properties you might otherwise overlook, like the spectacular Gangtey Lodge, Thimphu Pemako or Zhiwa Ling, arguably the most authentic upscale Bhutanese lodging experience you can have here.
The scheduled group tours tend to cherry pick the best lodges in each region, which is ideal, and the biggest growth in this sector has been among active travel specialty companies…
2. Active Travel: Bhutan is a wonderland of hiking, trekking, mountain biking, rafting, birding, fishing, horseback riding and increasingly, wildlife viewing. The country’s single best-known attraction – by far – is the iconic Tiger’s Nest monastery, inaccessible by road and requiring a 4–6-hour roundtrip hike (moderate difficulty but at altitude). While just about everyone who is physically capable visits this highlight on any kind of Bhutan tour, the concept sets the tone for active travel itineraries, which include it and many other hikes.
Just last fall, the King officially opened the new Trans-Bhutan Trail, a long-distance hiking (and mountain biking) route (like Bhutan’s Appalachian Trail) running the entire length of the country, border to border (read more about this big debut here). While only a small number of hardened trekkers will visit to do the whole thing, it is broken into regional segments, and these are incorporated on just about every itinerary from top active travel tour operators. In another twist on outdoor fun, the national sport of Bhutan is archery, and many of the luxury resorts offer ranges and the chance to try it with instruction and traditional handmade bamboo bows and arrows, great fun.
The best active travel outfitters have long had custom trips to Bhutan, but scheduled group trips, again more affordable (relatively), are now proliferating. Butterfield & Robinson, the company that invented the entire category of guided luxury active travel half a century ago, and the gold standard, has been doing custom Bhutan for years but very recently added its only scheduled group offering, a 12-day hiking trip. Backroads, the biggest luxury active travel specialist, and one I have traveled with happily several times, has scheduled group options including multi-sport and a hiking/biking hybrid, along with bespoke itineraries. Mountain Travel Sobek and Geographic Expeditions are two other long established and well-respected active travel operators with years of experience in Bhutan, offering some more active trekking options.
3. New Hotels: Not surprisingly, the upward trending of Bhutan tourism brings with it new players eager to get in on the luxury-oriented space. Just this month (September 2023), two all new and very notable hotels debuted. andBeyond (&Beyond) is a very well-known and respected luxury African safari lodge operator, with multiple lodges across East and Southern Africa, as well as a recent expansion into Chile. They just opened &Beyond Punakha River Lodge, in one of the fairest climate valley regions of Bhutan, an epicenter of hiking, biking and many other adventures, and I was lucky enough to be one of the very first guests just days after soft opening. It’s fabulous, and I write about it in much more detail here. I’d previously been to the award-winning &Beyond Sossusvlei in Namibia, which is fantastic, so I had very high expectations – the kind that are hard to meet – and still came away quite impressed. More than its many well-known luxury brand competitors, this property really focuses on the active outdoors and Bhutan beyond the normal cultural/temple circuit. It has just two villas and six deluxe safari-style “tented” suites (with soaking tubs, walk in showers, a/c and much more), great food with lots of local Bhutanese touches, great staff, and an enviable location.
Even newer (it opened a week later) is Pemako Punakha, easily the fanciest Bhutanese-owned property in the country. The parent company owns an airline, cellular carrier, several hotels and much more, including the top hotel in the capital city of Thimphu, Pemako Thimphu (previously a Taj Hotel, recently rebranded). This new build is big by Bhutan “boutique” standards, with about two dozen tented villas, each with its own butler and private pool. Even at the high-end luxury level many of the lodges here are too small to offer things like fitness centers or multiple dining and drinking outlets, but Pemako Punakha has all of that and is sure to be one of the world’s more talked about new hotels.
4. Buddhist Temples: As mentioned above, the Tiger’s Nest monastery is so synonymous with Bhutan it is what you see on every travel brochure, kicking off every travel article, at the top of all the web pages linked in this piece, and if you just Google images of Bhutan it’s mostly what you get. All of this fame is well deserved, it’s a stunner, but there are a lot – I mean a lot – of other monasteries, Dzongs (Monastic fortresses), stupas and one of the largest Buddha statues in the world at 170 feet (filled with 125,000 smaller ones). Many of these are more remote and can be combined with hikes or bike rides, but the most photogenic are accessible by vehicle. Even if you have no interest in Buddhism, the architecture and art, inside and out, is a must-see and one Bhutan’s major attractions, just like the Sistine Chapel in Rome or the Duomo in Florence.
5. Fly Fishing: OK, this is a bit of a wildcard, but it’s new and of ultra-high quality. Also, passionate anglers are people who already travel to remote spots to access the best waters, and this is one of those. The two main objectives are large brown trout (plus snow trout) and the immense and coveted Golden mahseer (plus Chocolate Mahseer), both on very uncrowded rivers. The latter is legendary, sort of like tarpon are to salt water, often topping 50 pounds and among the strongest fighting freshwater fish in the world, but they have dwindled in the other Asian nations where they are typically sought. Bhutan has tons of them, and the new regulations just allowed the first licensed trip this March (2023) with an outfitter called Himalayan Flyfishing Adventures. They offer both one-day outings and multi-day dedicated fishing vacations. Many of the better lodges, such as the new &Beyond, can also arrange fishing, but it needs to be planned in advance as there are a lot of license rules and very specific seasonality and limits on which rivers you can fish.