A common question about Bhutan is, where is it? Stuck between India and Tibet, this Himalayan kingdom escaped the radar of mass tourism for decades.
This is partly because Bhutan has a unique philosophy towards tourism. When this isolated country finally opened up to tourists in 1974, it adopted a “high value, low impact” policy. This means that there are strict controls on how visitors travel to Bhutan, including cost.
Ruled by the principles of Buddhism rather than business, Bhutan is a country that prioritizes Gross National Happiness over Gross Domestic Product. And this idea is found in all aspects of tourism.
To date, Bhutan is also the only carbon negative country in the world.
On September 23 this year, the country will finally reopen to tourists without quarantine for the first time in over two years.
So what can other countries learn from the tourism model of this enigmatic high-altitude nation?
The environment is king
Environmental conservation is one of the four pillars of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness philosophy, recognizing the importance of nature to the well-being of its citizens.
Landscape protection is enshrined in the constitution. It is mandatory that at least 60% of Bhutan’s land be covered by forest at all times – and WWF says Bhutan has consistently met this target. Currently, the forest cover is around 70%.
Overall, more than 50% of the country is protected. This is the highest percentage of any Asian country, according to the WWF.
Between its high mountain peaks and its alpine forest valleys, Bhutan has carved out a network of 5 million acres of protected areas. Within these boundaries, the natives wildlife such as the endangered Royal Bengal tigers, snow leopards and elephants are thriving.
“People in this Buddhist kingdom can cling to a basic right: to live their lives in a healthy environment,” says WWF.
People are the heart of the kingdom
Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness philosophy runs counter to widely accepted global economic principles.
Instead of focusing on material development, the kingdom has long believed that national development should be based on the happiness and prosperity of its people. This also applies to tourism, which is designed to benefit local people.
The Trans Bhutan Trail, which will open soon, is a good example of community tourism. This historic cross-country pilgrimage trail has been restored not only for tourists, but also to reconnect remote rural communities.
The new long-distance hiking route aims to promote cultural exchange, while helping remote communities reap the economic benefits of tourism.
The non-profit sustainable tourism company behind the trail also works in partnership with local schools, scout groups and the National Youth Service of Bhutan to provide educational opportunities in areas such as flora and fauna, low impact trekking, first aid and cultural history, for the communities along the way.
Tourist dollars are controlled and protected
Although the number of annual visitors to Bhutan before the pandemic increased, the country never received more than 315,000 tourists a year. Compare this to its neighbor Nepala country similar in culture and topography, which welcomed more than one million tourists in 2019.
There is no limit to the number of tourists, but Bhutan has deliberately set a high daily fee to ensure that it never receives more tourists than its population of 700,000 can support.
This daily pass is $290 (€277) per day for an individual in high season (March to May and September to November), dropping to $250 (€239) per day per person for groups of three or more. .
The fees help maintain an air of exclusivity, although if you look closely at the numbers, it’s not exactly outrageous.
The rate includes three meals per day; a licensed English-speaking Bhutanese guide; all ground transportation including a driver; a minimum of 3-star accommodation per night; entrance fees to tourist attractions; camping equipment and transport for hikes; and a free local SIM card.
Setting prices domestically in this way minimizes tourism leakage – the term for the diversion of money to international businesses and bank accounts. It ensures the employment of the inhabitants. And the tariff also includes a $65 Sustainability Fee, which helps the government provide free education and healthcare — and build infrastructure.
Personality is the key to culture
Bhutanese see tourism as a cultural exchange. Rather than allowing an industry that dilutes local culture to cater to foreign tastes, Bhutan has structured its tourism development to immerse foreigners in the country’s culture and traditions.
Bhutan is proud of its Buddhist history and tribal communities, and the tourism industry is designed to provide a fascinating window into the lives of locals. Visitors are even encouraged to wear the kingdom’s traditional costumes, the gho and the kira.
And it’s also a country with its own quirks. from Bhutan the king roamed the jungle and in the mountains to oversee COVID measures during the pandemic.
Visitors can try archery, one of the national pastimes. And it is known for its phallic art, a custom that dates back centuries but is fully embraced by present-day Bhutan.
It is also the only country in the world without traffic lights. Rumor has it they were deemed too impersonal.
Even now, in the 21st century, crossroads in the capital Thimpu are manned by a policeman.