Can Bhutan forge a new tourist path?

The Himalayan kingdom, until now wary of holidaymakers, is hoping to boost visitor numbers without tarnishing its environmental record. Tashi Dorji reports.

Most of the 3,400 tourists who trekked the lush green mountains of Bhutan in 2011 were blithely unaware they were breaking the law of the land when, at night, they retired from the biting Himalayan cold to the warmth of comforting bonfires.

It is illegal for trekkers in Bhutan to light bonfires. But, out of ignorance, most tourist groups end up singing the night away around a pile of crackling logs. The rule, introduced 18 years ago, stipulates that the scarce supply of wood fuel in the high mountain areas is solely meant for “local people’s needs for cooking, heating in the winter months and other domestic uses.”

Many aspects of tourism in Bhutan are strictly regulated like this. By law, tour guides are obliged to wear national dress whenever they are with tourists, for example. It is also illegal for guides to lie to or misinform visitors, or to become romantically involved with their charges.

Trekking excursions must choose between 13 designated trekking routes. And a limited number of people are allowed to hike the most popular paths at any given time. Trekkers must also stop at designated campsites and are not allowed to spend the night in other areas.

While some tour operators complain about the stringent rules, the government has always argued that the tight restrictions are necessary to limit the negative impacts of tourism, an issue that concerns all sections of society. But its approach now seems to be loosening. Bhutan’s policymakers have unveiled major expansion plans for the tourist sector. At the same time, they have pledged to boost visitor numbers while continuing to carefully manage the downsides.

Bhutan is ranked as one of the world’s top tourist destinations, but a visit comes at a hefty price.  Tourists traveling to Bhutan must pay a daily tariff of between US$200 and US$250, which includes board at a comfortable hotel, three meals, private transport and a tour guide for the day.

There are also rules about the food tourists eat: they are entitled to continental meals and a minimum number of food items must be served for every breakfast, lunch and dinner. For every meal, at least seven different types of food should be offered up. Evening tea or coffee should be accompanied by cookies or sandwiches with biscuits or pastries.

There are only 128 hotels and resorts in Bhutan qualified to cater to tourists, with a total of 5,572 beds between them. But the country can accommodate more guests at any given time, because about 10% of Bhutan’s tourists are trekkers who do not require comfortable hotels.

In 2011, Bhutan received over 64,000 tourists, a record number, and up 56% on the 40,800 odd visitors who entered the country the previous year. Bhutan first opened its doors to tourists in 1974, a year during which it saw 287 visitors. By the time the kingdom became a parliamentary democracy in 2008, the number of tourists was at 30,000 annually. The snail-pace growth in the number of visitors to Bhutan can be attributed to the state’s cautious approach to tourism.

“Since Bhutan allowed tourism in 1974, the top priority has never been to increase tourist numbers but to manage it sustainably,” said Damcho Rinzin, spokesperson for the Tourism Council of Bhutan.

After opening the nation to tourism, the government set up the Bhutan Travel Agency, which acted as the country’s sole tour operator and provided all tourist related services in the country. As the private sector was still in its infancy, tourism was unable to attract large numbers of entrepreneurs; by 1991, there were still only 33 tour operators in the country.

But the sector received a major boost in 1999, when the government liberalised the licensing of tour operators. In the same year, Bhutan lifted a ban on television broadcasting and the internet, becoming one of the last countries in the world to introduce its people to TV.

Gradually, the government adopted the “high value, low volume” approach to tourism. This guarded approach aims to attract mainly “responsible tourists”, explained Damcho Rinzin. He said the principle intention of the policy was not to limit tourist numbers, but to respect the capacity of the economy in terms of environment, culture, security and infrastructure. Records show that the majority of tourists visiting Bhutan are over 60-years-old, have good academic qualifications and are first time visitors.

Sustainability lies at the heart of Bhutan’s tourism policy. According to Damcho Rinzin, the impact of tourism should never be greater than what the economy and the people can endure. He said the Bhutanese model of tourism is the result of meticulous planning after studying tourism models of countries like Thailand, Cambodia and Laos and researching the lifestyle of rural Bhutanese. “In the highlands, we want to promote tourism when the nomadic people are free. Then the benefits to them will be at the maximum,” said Damcho Rinzin.

Likewise, Bhutan’s tourism policy embraces environmental preservation which is also one of the four main pillars on which the country’s development philosophy, “Gross National Happiness” – or GNH – is founded. Bhutan has the only constitution in the world that mandates that at least 60% of the country remains under forest cover for all times to come. The government has also pledged to remain carbon neutral forever.

And so, today, ecotourism is a priority. The country boasts more than 165 animal species and 770 species of birds. Bhutan is also home to 60% of the endemic species of the eastern Himalayan region and over 300 medicinal plants. Many tour packages revolve around the country’s rich biodiversity, such as bird watching trips to see endangered species like the black-necked crane, takin and white-bellied heron.

But ecotourism is also tightly restricted. Bhutan banned mountaineering back in the 1980s. Even today, tourists can only trek to the base camps of Bhutanese mountains. While extreme sports enthusiasts may not like the prohibition, it is the reason why Bhutan has the highest unclimbed mountain in the world, Gangkar Puensum, standing 7,570 metres tall. There are strong environmental and spiritual reasons behind this regulation, explained Damcho Rimzin, rooted in Bhutanese reverence for the mountains.

This cautious approach to tourism has had far-reaching repercussions for the economy. Bhutan has sacrificed the huge tourist income it could have generated by adopting a more liberal policy. While Bhutan relies on selling hydropower to generate revenue, the hydropower sector has not created high numbers of jobs. And, for a long time, tourism – even in its limited state – has been the country’s second most productive sector in terms of revenue. It also contributes more to the local economy than hydropower, by benefiting farmers, taxi drivers, airlines, travel agents, handicraft and souvenir shops and hoteliers, and by giving direct employment to the Bhutanese people.

As of last year, there were 741 tour operators employing over 8,800 people and indirectly benefiting many more in a country with a population of just over 700,000. In 2011, the sector made record revenue of US$47.68 million (303 million yuan) of which US$14.89 million (94.76 million yuan) went to the government. In this light, it is hardly surprising the government has identified tourism as one of the most vibrant sectors in the economy.

And so, with an eye on the economic and employment benefits, the government hopes to attract at least 100,000 tourists annually by 2013. It believes that the country is now ready to go for numbers and has also opened the sector to foreign direct investment. The government has earmarked about US$1 million (6.4 million yuan) to develop tourism-related infrastructure in the 2011 to 2012 budget.

But a flourishing tourism economy still faces three major challenges. First, tourism in Bhutan has become seasonal. Most tourists come during the spring and autumn, while summer and winter see hardly any visitors at all. The government has made efforts to attract tourists throughout the year, but it is proving difficult.

Second, Bhutan’s tourist destinations are not evenly distributed across the country. Most of the popular spots are clustered in western Bhutan, and certain pockets of the country receive hardly any visitors. The government is now building infrastructure and trying to market the unique selling points of all regions in an effort to disperse tourists more widely.

Third, the country only has one international airline. Druk Air, Bhutan’s national carrier has limited capacity; it is virtually impossible to get tickets during high season, while flights are almost empty during summer and winter. Hotels see the same pattern: it is very difficult to find a room for parts of the year, while most sit vacant in monsoon and winter. Spreading tourist trips more evenly throughout the year is seen as essential to build a thriving industry.

Despite the challenges, the government is optimistic that it can boost employment and revenues through tourism at the same time as keeping pressures on the social and environmental fabric of the country to a minimum. If Bhutan achieves all this, perhaps other Himalayan kingdoms will sit up and take note.

Tashi Dorji is a journalist based in Thimpu.

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