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A Pursuit of Happiness in Bhutan Tourism

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Bhutan wants the tourist sector to play a larger role in national development.

But expanding tourism poses challenges for the Kingdom – some fear accelerated growth will damage the country’s culture.

Ron Corben has this report from the Kingdom – known best for measuring national development with its Gross National Happiness index.

Foreign guests are welcomed in Bhutan’s capital Thimphu, by traditional music and song under bright blue chilly skies of late winter.

Bhutan is emerging as a popular destination in a world hungry for new and exotic destinations.

The Kingdom with a population of 700,000 people is sandwiched between Asia’s giants -- China and India.   

Over the past four decades tourism has followed a policy of “high value, low volume” visitors.

A daily all encompassing tariff is set at $250 for each traveller. The aim is purposely to limit traveller numbers to the Kingdom, but still earn significant foreign exchange from them.

Tshering Tobgay is a resort owner in Paro, the second most popular destination in Bhutan.

He says the policy has avoided mass tourism’s excesses. 

“The government is taking a very good initiative to promote tourism in a way that we don’t want a lot of people in one go. So we focus on high value and low volume. It’s a very good concept. This is a small country, we don’t [want] a lot of tourism to come in and spoil our culture and heritage likewise [sic] in other countries.”

In 1974 Bhutan opened its doors for the first time to the outside world, welcoming less than 300 visitors to this isolated Kingdom.

Ten years later, tourism contributed over 2 million US dollars in annual revenue.

Now the government hopes to boost arrivals to 100,000 by 2013.

Kesang Wangdi, Director General of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, says tourism will play a greater role in Bhutan’s development.

“Tourism occupies one of the key priorities and attention of the government because of its potential to contribute towards a more equitable socio-economic development in terms of alleviation of poverty issues and employment generation.”

Although Bhutan’s GDP is among the highest in South Asia, one-third of the population is poor.

Wangdi says tourism can support local community development, by supporting everyone ranging from taxi drivers to owners of the horses needed for trekking routes. But the strategy has also raised concerns.

The industry is the second foreign exchange earnings to hydro electricity sales to India.

Thuji Dorji Nadik, also from the Council, says tourism in the country is at a crossroad

“With the exception of hydropower we don’t have any other viable industry. So then tourism, in my view, is getting a lot of attention which is necessary but we also have to be careful that too much expectation is not built up on tourism that it will solve all the issues.”

Bhutan’s latest marketing slogan is “happiness is a place”.

The capital Thimphu and western city of Paro are the most important centres for tourism. A sacred monastery to Buddhist overlooking the Paro valley is a must-see destination.

Rick Antonson, president of Tourism Vancouver, says Bhutan faces a challenge of developing a clear place in global tourism.

“There is almost a ‘Bhutan myth’ that is as much perception as it is reality. Bhutan will need to decide what is its reality? What is the destination for visitors that it wants to be, and then work very hard to stay true to that? A significant challenge for Bhutan will be the pressure from mainstream tourism investors and developers [who] would willing be mere profiteers from the Bhutan image and in the course of five years could tarnish the reputation.”

With tourism demand increasing national carrier DrukAir recently purchased an additional aircraft, adding to a fleet of six. It has also launched domestic services.

But additional infrastructure in Bhutan is necessary to meet such demand, says resort manager Julie Beattie.

“There’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built to support 100,000 coming in. You’ve got to look at that from airport facilities, then hotels. The thing is to make sure that the infrastructure is not all centered on certain places – it actually is diffused across the Kingdom.”

Already worrying signs are emerging of tourism’s intrusion into Bhutan’s pristine environment, which has 72 percent under forest cover.

Plastic bottles and other non-biodegradable waste in streams and near trekking tracks have already triggered traveller criticism, says economics minister, Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk.

“We feel now – what began at this crossroads – many tourists told us that ‘if we don’t take care of the trash on the trekking routes or the waste in the cities – I don’t want to spend 250 dollars to see this rubbish’. So our tourism industry is to be now totally dependent on how we manage and how we do the things correctly.”

Buddhist prayer flags flutter violently at Che Li La Pass, almost 4,000 meters above the Paro Valley.

The air is fresh and cold, the scenery is inspiring with snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Bhutan Tourism Council guide, Phuntsho Gyeltshen, says preserving Bhutan’s culture is vital to the industry’s future.

“When people hear about Bhutan they relate to high mountains, the culture, and the tradition. So basically it’s important to preserve what we have right now. Bhutan is still one of those places we probably dream or wish to see at some point in our lives you know. So I think this could be one of those destinations one should try and visit once in their life time.”


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