Bhutan launches a new spiritual trek through Himalayan valley

With its mountainous Himalayan setting, hilltop monasteries and rich culture, the Kingdom of Bhutan is a haven for hiking enthusiasts.

As such, hopes are high for the new Joy Bay Tsho Trek in Haa, a beautiful valley deep in the southwest.

This 25km-long hike takes approximately two days to complete and winds between the villages of Mocha and Gakiling Gewog.

The landscape of Haa Valley features Buddhist monasteries, like this one (Shutterstock)

Dorji Dhradhul, the Director General of the Department of Tourism Bhutan said: “As we unveil the Jo Bay Tsho trekking route, we invite travellers to embark on a journey of discovery amidst beautiful landscapes and cultural richness.”

“This new route promises an unforgettable adventure, blending the beauty of nature with the warmth of Bhutanese hospitality.”

What to expect on the Jo Bay Tsho Trek 

Commencing in the village of Mochu, trekkers will begin with a spiritual experience at one the country’s most culturally significant temples, home to more than 1,000 Buddha statues.

From there, the journey continues amidst Bhutan’s green and bamboo forests, majestic mountains, and the highlight of the trek, Jo Bay Tsho (historically translating to ‘Hidden Lake’), which spans approximately 300 metres in length and 200 metres in breadth.

Read next: Finding a happy place in Bhutan

Hikers can also expect to traverse a terrain of gentle slopes through wooded areas, farmland and some slightly challenging passages, with a probable chance of spotting wildlife and domestic animals.

This route isn’t only for seasoned hikers. The Joy Bay Tsho Trek also appeals to nature lovers in search of tranquillity or travellers wanting to immerse themselves in Bhutan’s cultural landscape, meeting friendly and hospitable locals en route.

For something more challenging, the Trans Bhutan Trail is 403km east-west hike through the Buddhist Kingdom that begins in Haa and follows a former Buddhist pilgrimage path.

The ancient trail reopened for the first time in 50 years back in 2022 and connects nine traditional fortresses (dzongs) and takes in the impressive Paro Taktsang en route.

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Bhutan’s new incentive makes long-stay travel more affordable

When Bhutan reopened to travellers in the final quarter of 2022, it returned with a ‘transformative’ sustainability scheme

The Buddhist Kingdom has long been praised for its strong stance on sustainability, but the government wanted to heighten its efforts when they welcomed back international travellers in September 2022.

As part of its refreshed tourism model, Bhutan announced an increase to its tourism tax – known as Sustainable Development Fee (SDF). Visitors to the country are now required to pay 200 USD per person, per night – more than triple what it once was.

The funds raised from the SDF go towards protecting and preserving the country’s landscape, communities and heritage, with a percentage being put into sustainability projects, such as tackling climate change.

When you extend your stay, you can go beyond the tourist sites and visit the remote corners of Bhutan (Shutterstock)

However, the country has now introduced several incentives to encourage visitors to not only visit, but extend their stay and take time exploring Bhutan’s 20 provinces.

From the 1 June 2023 until 31 December 2024, those who pay for a set number of nights will then be able to stay for an additional several nights without paying the daily fee.

There are currently three options travellers can choose from:

4 + 4: Pay the SDF of USD 200 per night, per person, for four nights, and receive up to four additional nights without the daily levy.

7 + 7: Pay the SDF of USD 200 per night, per person, for seven nights, and receive up to seven additional nights without the daily levy.

12 + 18: Pay the SDF USD 200 per night per person, for twelve nights, and receive up to eighteen additional nights without the daily levy.

When your trip comes to an end, the incentives will then ‘reset’. You can work out how much SDF you will need to pay by using this online calculator.

This new initiative aims to help travellers slow down and make the most of their Bhutanese adventure, beyond the tourist hot spots. Those who enjoy hiking can spend their days exploring on foot, with the newly restored Trans Bhutan Trail or the famous Snowman Trek being popular options. Alternatively, culture seekers can plan their stay around the country’s many festivals, or get to know the locals by venturing into the highlands and meeting remote communities.

Get to know authentic Bhutan when you stay longer and explore further (Shutterstock)

Visitors are also given the opportunity to plant a tree and make a meaningful contribution towards Bhutan’s target of planting one million new trees, helping to maintain the country’s carbon-negative status.

Dorji Dhradhul, Director General of Bhutan’s Department of Tourism said: “We are delighted to welcome guests to share in the wonder and wilderness of Bhutan”.

“These incentives are an opportunity for our friends from around the world to experience more, travel further, and stay longer – and by doing so, to actively participate in progress and preservation that benefits our citizens and the wider world.

He concluded: “We hope that with these incentives, together with the recent reduction in the monument fees and the 24-hour SDF waiver for border towns, Bhutan will be a more accessible destination for a wider range of guests”.

Bhutan reopens its borders with ‘transformative’ sustainability plan for tourism

After nearly three years of closure, Bhutan has finally reopened its doors to international travellers for the first time since the breakout of coronavirus. 

From today (23 September) foreign visitors are once again able to fly into Paro airport and explore the beautiful Buddhist kingdom located within the Himalayan mountains.  

Those who visit will be able to experience the country’s extraordinary sacred temples, ancient monuments and culture and nature trails, which were all closed and upgraded during the pandemic.

Bhutan does return with a slight difference, however. The nation has always had sustainability at its core, but this has now been pushed to the forefront of its new ‘transformative’ tourism model.

Infrastructures such as monastery’s have been upgraded during the pandemic (Shutterstock)

Commenting on Bhutan’s long-running ‘High Value, Low Volume’ tourism strategy, the country’s Prime Minister Lotay Tshering said: “Its intent and spirit were watered down over the years, without us even realising it. Therefore, as we reset as a nation after this pandemic, and officially open our doors to visitors today, we are reminding ourselves about the essence of the policy, the values and merits that have defined us for generations.”

Part of the Bhutan’s plan to honour its sustainability values has meant a rise in cost for travellers. The country recently announced that its Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) will rise from $65 per person, per night to $200.

The fees raised from visitors will go towards funding programmes that preserve Bhutan’s cultural traditions and upgrade its infrastructure. Furthermore, it will also provide opportunities for local youth, free healthcare, and education for everyone.

As a country that is vulnerable to climate change, with melting glaciers, flooding and unpredictable weather conditions, money raised from the SDF will most importantly go towards Bhutan’s sustainability projects. An example of this is offsetting the carbon footprint of its visitors by planting trees, upskilling workers, managing and cleaning trails and reducing the country’s need for fossil fuels. 

The Trans Bhutan Trail is part of the country’s recent developments (Shutterstock)

Bhutan will also be taking extra care to maintain its status as one of the world’s only carbon-negative countries. In 2021, they sequestered 9.4 million tonnes of carbon against its emission capacity of 3.8 million tonnes.

Director General of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, Dorji Dhradhul, said: “Beyond protecting Bhutan’s natural environment, the SDF will also be directed towards activities that preserve Bhutan’s built and living cultural heritage, including architecture and traditional values, as well as meaningful environmental projects. Our future requires us to protect our heritage, and to forge fresh pathways for forthcoming generations.”

“We need tourism to not only benefit Bhutan economically, but socially as well, while maintaining our low sustainable footprint.

He continued: “The goal of our new strategy is to create high value experiences for guests, in addition to well-paying and professional jobs for our citizens.  This is our moment of evolution, and we invite our guests to become our partners in this transformative moment.”

The new model also aims to heighten the overall experience of visitors to its country. This can be through elevated quality of service, overall cleanliness, less cars on roads and reduced tourists at its most attractive sacred sites. “By doing so, we protect the experience for visitors to Bhutan, as we must be able to provide authentic experiences supported by world-class services and personal care”, concluded Tandi Dorji, Bhutan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. 

People in masks performing a traditional dance in Bhutan (Shutterstock)

Trans Bhutan Trail announces new Women’s Adventure tour

As International Women’s Day approaches (8 March), the Trans Bhutan Trail has announced an exciting new active tour just for women.

This exclusive 12-day trip, simply named Women’s Adventure, will follow in the footsteps of remarkable Bhutanese women, with travellers also able to explore the natural and historical landscape of the 250 mile Trans Bhutan Trail, reopening this spring after years of extensive restoration.

The carefully crafted itinerary will be led by local female tour guides, and will provide insight into the interesting Bhutanese matriarchal society. Guests will be able to see how the role of women has changed in relation to the country’s guiding philosophy of Gross National Happiness. 

Looking onto Paro Chu (Trans Bhutan Trail)

Activities on the tour include discovering traditional Bhutanese crafts, and a visit to two nunneries to meet the women and girls living there, and learn all about Nyingma Peling Buddhist traditions.

Additionally, guests will be able to explore the best food, fashion and wellness activities, which, of course, are inspired by local women.

Rigsang from the Trans Bhutan Trail said: “Women these days often have to juggle work and family, but while trying to strike a balance, they often forget to care for themselves. Connecting with Mother Nature helps them to heal and be at one with the natural world.

“Just as Mother Earth needs time to heal, being a woman from this generation, I would encourage women to take time off and dedicate themselves to self-care.

“Itineraries such as this one which focus on women provide an important space to connect with other women from different walks of life, and to form a network outside of work and family.”

The trips, which begin from September 2022, cost from £5,120pp and includes 11 nights’ hotel and lodge accommodation, all meals, transfers, guiding and excursions.

To find out more and book, head to the official Trans Bhutan Trail website.

Keep up to date with entry requirements here.