Can Traditional Bhutan Survive Tourism ?

Bhutan is commonly described as “heaven on earth.”  Heaven, though, has been getting a lot of visitors recently.

Travelers have started to take notice of Bhutan, great news for the nation that’s banking on tourism for economic grow. Now the hard part: preserving its cultural treasures.

In 2013, Bhutan had nearly 120,000 visitors—the highest in its history, according to the Bhutan Tourism Council. Americans made up the largest foreign market with about 7,000 visitors. Visitors from India, Bhutan’s neighbor, however, still dominate in terms of annual visitors.

As a landlocked country with a mountainous terrain and a largely agricultural population, Bhutan is turning to tourism for revenue.  And rightly so: its historic Buddhist monasteries nestled atop cliffs at high altitude, with majestic views of the Himalayas in the distance, make for the ideal photo op.

The Himalayan kingdom started welcoming visitors nearly 40 years ago.  But, it’s really in the last decade that Bhutan has seen an influx of tourists, especially those from beyond Asia.  The country prizes its natural beauty: in fact, Bhutan’s constitution carries a clause stating that 60 percent of its land will always be kept as forest.  At present over 72% of the land is forest. Bhutan is one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world known as the East Himalayan ‘hot spot’, the hub of 221 global endemic bird areas. The recorded number of bird species is over 670 and is expected to rise as new birds are discovered.

Despite its small landmass Bhutan has a remarkable abundance of flora and fauna and is one of the most biologically diverse regions of the world. The wide-range of climatic conditions allows for an unparalleled array of vegetation and wildlife to thrive within Bhutan.

Bhutan is swiftly developing its reputation as a premier destination for adventure sports. Set amongst the majestic Himalayas the kingdom is the perfect location for all manner of exciting activities including Hiking, Trekking, Kayaking, Rafting, Mountain Biking and Fishing. The lush, virgin forests of Bhutan offer a one-of-a-kind experience for travelers seeking adventure in an unspoiled and unexplored environment.

Bhutan has many activities available for those visitors seeking a place of solace, rest and recuperation.  Whether it’s a session of peaceful, contemplative meditation, a relaxing soak in a mineral hot spring bath or the all natural remedies of our traditional medicine Bhutan has just what you need to revive and rejuvenate your body and spirit

“Despite the rapid growth, Bhutan is still trying to keep its traditions alive and preserve the heavens for generations to come.”

That’s been Bhutan’s selling point: its quiet, spiritual, and earthy nature make it a good place to disconnect from the frantic ways of modern life.  As tourists pour in from around the world, the newly-formed democracy is trying to balance growth and modernization with heritage. The question is: can it be done in a mindful way?

Sitting outside the Druk Hotel in Thimphu, one of the oldest hotels in the country, it appears as if modernization has already arrived.  Three young Bhutanese men are preparing for a street fair with a live concert. U2 and Coldplay ballads blast into the town square as the men test the audio system. An elderly gentleman, sitting on the steps, facing the sound stage isn’t entertained. He says he just wanted to rest quietly before resuming his walk up to the stupa, a Buddhist shrine dedicated to the 3rd King of Bhutan. Disgruntled, he gets up and walks away.

Nearby, a hole-in-the-wall barber is snipping away.  He’s from the Indian state of Bihar and is styling a young Bhutanese mane into the latest hair craze: a sort-of disheveled, layered look for men, globalized by South Korean pop stars. The world has clearly reached Bhutan, and the young members, at least, are enjoying it, often to the chagrin of the older generation.

The rise in tourism has also meant more jobs for the younger generations. Over 2,000 people graduate from university each year in Bhutan, and they yearn for professional work. The government is hoping tourism can keep them from migrating to nearby India or Thailand.  There are over 11,000 travel operators in the country, and the industry employs nearly 30,000 people. Plus, its easy for entrepreneurs to start their own businesses—all you need is a computer and an Internet connection.

Tashi Tshering, a young Bhutanese man, operates a travel agency for filmmakers and documentarians.  He doesn’t see tourism as a challenge to tradition.  Rather, he says, “the promotion done by high end resorts have benefitted us a lot.  More people are aware of us.”

Bhutan is home to some of the world’s most luxurious hotels, often garnering recognition on international best hotel lists, and Aman Resorts is one of these, offering uber-luxurious hotels in remote locations. The resort chain has five properties in the small country and was the first foreign hotel operator allowed to build in Bhutan starting in 2004.

John Reed, the managing director for Aman’s hotels in Bhutan, moved to the Himalayan kingdom over a decade ago when Aman opened its first location in Paro. Prior to Bhutan, Reed was stationed in Bali and Myanmar. He recognizes that working in these countries, which have ancient heritage sites and pristine natural beauty, comes with cultural and environmental responsibilities.

Reed is originally from New Orleans and has been a long-time world traveller.  But, his stay in Bhutan has exceeded a decade now, making him more of a local than a foreigner.  He says that while Aman resorts creates a feel of “rustic luxury” at their properties in Bhutan, they are vested in supporting the local economy.

Mukesh Gupta, who operates the oldest travel agency for Bhutan, Bhutan Travels, disagrees. Raised in Darjeeling, India, Gupta attended St. Joseph’s School with a large community of Bhutanese children who were studying abroad. Gupta built friendships with these Bhutanese families and was asked to work with the Bhutanese government on crafting their tourism strategy in the early 90s as he developing his own travel company in Darjeeling.

Gupta has not been impressed by Aman Resorts, characterizing their properties as over-priced getaways for people who just want to stay at another Aman resort, not immerse themselves in local Bhutanese life.  “If you want to go luxury, there’s Taj Tashi or even, Uma,” he says, directing luxury traffic to Bhutan’s other expensive hotspots.

But the best luxury hotel, he says, is a completely Bhutanese venture: Zhiwa Ling in Paro.  “It’s high standards but with Bhutanese soul,” he says.  The owner rescued pieces from deserted monasteries to decorate the hotel. Much like rural Bhutanese homes, which house a decorated temple inside, the hotel has a temple on the second floor with rescued wood from the 400-year-old Gangtey Monastery. That’s the locally-driven model Gupta hopes the government will advocate.

While Bhutan’s tourism numbers are on the rise, peaking last year with gross revenues from tourism exceeding $63 million, the highest to date, the country still struggles during the low season. Most visitors go in the spring (April, May) or the fall (September, October). Adventure sports and mountaineering could lure in travelers during the off season, but they are still limited. Bhutan’s tallest mountain has not been climbed yet, thanks to environmental concerns and the locals’ immense respect for mountains.

Despite the rapid growth, Bhutan is still trying to keep its traditions alive and preserve the heavens for generations to come.

For a peak into this exotic Himalayan kingdom contact Road@Travel.

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