How to get refund from canceled Bhutan tour due to COVID-19
We got several inquiries from people who did pay for their tour to Bhutanese tour operators, often several thousands US dollars, and had to cancel due to COVID-19 pandemic. Now they are struggling to get their money back. Some tour operators stopped communicating, some did say that they only can provide voucher for tour in 2021 or gave other doubtful excuse. Given the long duration of the pandemic with no end in sight, most travelers want to get their money back now, and we are here to help with that!
Your rights in face of pandemic caused cancellations
As per the Bhutan tourism rules and regulations, travel agents have complete freedom to specify their cancellation policy. Under normal circumstances, if you cancel the tour for any reason, being it your health condition or any other cause, you will be refunded according to these conditions, unless your tour operator agrees to some concessions.
Anyway the cancellations due to COVID-19 pandemic are different case, since it represents typical force majeure, the higher force, which means that both tour operator and visitor are exonerated from their duties of contract. Exact implications are not clear though and probably could only be determined by the court ruling.
Unfortunately, the Tourism Council of Bhutan, government body which oversees the tourism in the country, did not issue any guidance for tour operators how to handle the refunds.
Anyway, there is general understanding between the tour operators, authorities and basically all tourism service providers in Bhutan, that payments should be refunded to travelers either in full or at least as much as practically possible.
This is also the policy adopted by Firefox Tours. Till today, we refunded all our visitors who requested their money back. Few are postponing to 2021 and in case this won’t be possible, we are ready to refund them as well.
Visas, permits and land tour cost should be fully refunded
Basically all money spent on ground arrangements in Bhutan, usually the biggest part of the tour payment, should be refunded in full.
This includes visa fees and all other government fees, payment for hotels including 4★ and 5★ properties, transportation, guide, meals etc.
Government did refund all visa and permit fees for all cancellations made after the country’s closure. All hotels were flexible as well and accepted cancellations without any usual cancellation conditions. Transportation, meals and guides are normally paid only after the tour is conducted. So there is no reason not to refund all these costs.
Flight ticket refunds depends on airlines
Drukair – Royal Bhutan Airlines, the national and government owned airlines are refunding canceled tickets in full. Just mind that the money are only being refunded in the same month, during which the flight was supposed to be conducted. So if you booked to fly in October, you will not be able to get refund earlier than that.
Bhutan Airlines, the first and only private airlines in Bhutan, unfortunately don’t refund payments for canceled flights. This is great source of frustration among the Bhutanese tour operators. Apparently, the airlines don’t have any cash flow and thus no resources to refund from. You might need to wait for some time. Unfortunately, there is also risk, that airlines will bankrupt and then you will not be able to get anything. There is nothing tour operators can do about it, so please be patient and understanding.
What you can’t get back
Bank transfer or card payment fees are non-refundable.
Bank transfer fee for standard international payment (SWIFT) depends on your bank. It usually falls in between 25 and 65 USD, in average 40 USD, per transfer. Refunded amount you get would be reduced by this fee at least twice, once for your payment to Bhutan and second time when Bhutanese tour operator sends your money back. If you sent money to Bhutan in multiple installments, the loss on banking fees will be even higher.
Card payment fee to Bhutan is usually 3.5% or around. This amount also can’t be refunded. Additional bank transfer fees for refund payment might also be charged.
Also, if you booked some services outside Bhutan, perhaps in India or Nepal, the refund very much depends on the policies of service providers there and Bhutanese tour operators have very limited capacity to do anything about it.
How to force rogue tour operator to refund you
If your Bhutanese tour operator is avoiding refunding you for the tour canceled due to pandemic, yours only help is Tourism Council of Bhutan. They have power to set the crooked tour operator straight.
You can present your case by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You should mention all relevant details, especially what was the name of your Bhutanese tour operator, the planned dates of your travel, your own names and passport numbers, details of your payment and whether your visas were already issued or not (attach the visa approval if yes).
If you booked tour through the counterpart in Nepal, India or other country, situation is more complicated. Tourism Council of Bhutan can’t force company outside Bhutan to refund you. Anyway if you know the name of Bhutanese tour operator (it is always written on your visa letter), you can still check if they refunded your tour payment to your booking agent abroad or your payment is still in Bhutan.
Tourism Council of Bhutan will investigate your case, and they will force tour operator to duly refund you in fair manner. We hope this will help you and you will still visit Bhutan when leisure travel will again be possible.
Most of the tour operators in Bhutan are honest and fair and chances you will bump into rotten apple again is not high. You can consider Firefox Tours as well!
We would also appreciate if you let us know about your experiences with refunding positive or negative.