Bhutan’s cautious tourism policy has not only helped establish Bhutan’s reputation as a must-visit tourist destination in the world but has also ensured the long-term sustainability of tourism.Bhutan’s tryst with tourism began almost four decades ago. Until that time, Bhutan was known to be a reclusive, hermit kingdom – cloistered in the folds of the Himalayan Mountains, largely unknown to the world.
In 1974, Bhutan officially opened its sealed doors to foreigners. The historic Coronation Day on June 2, 1974 was not only about the youngest monarch in the world being crowned as the King of Bhutan but the year was also a harbinger of change that Bhutan chose for itself.By the late 1960s, Bhutan had gradually started to emerge out of the self-imposed isolation.The young King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, introduced tourism as part of his visionary plan to modernize the country.
Around 287 tourists visited the country then during the Coronation Day. Since then, the number of tourist arrivals has consistently increased over the years, with figures touching 2,850 in 1992 and 5,000 for the first time in 1996. The tourism sector contributed more than USD 2 million in 1996, making it the nation’s third most important source of foreign exchange. The tourist arrivals swelled to a staggering 116,209 in 2013 with gross earnings worth USD 63.49 million.
However, the economic windfall of international tourism didn’t tempt Bhutan. It was in fact wary of the signs of modernization undermining both culture and environment, which were ostensible in a few neighboring countries. Obviously, the benefits of tourism did not come free of cost. Over exposure to tourism had multiple effects on traditional values, culture and environment. Bhutan had to choose carefully.
Envisioned by the Fourth King, Bhutan pursued a cautious, controlled tourism policy of ‘low volume, high value’ approach that has not only helped establish Bhutan’s reputation as an exclusive and distinctive destination, but also ensured the long-term sustainability of tourism in the country.
The result today is we can still boast of a vibrant culture and a pristine environment even after over four decades of having opened to tourism. If tourism has sustained, it’s all because of the tourism policy that we adopted – a policy that draws wisdom and guidance from the country’s explicit sustainable development policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) that was propounded by His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the late 1980s. If tourism is thriving today, it’s because of the principle of sustainability that it’s founded on, which emphasizes on developing the tourism sector in a way that should consider the social aspects, should be economically viable and environment friendly.
The ‘high value, low volume’ approach worked as a controlling strategy, limiting the number of foreign visitors. This policy was implemented through the all-inclusive high tariffs (USD 200 per head per day for cultural tourist and trekking, and USD 120 for trekking) for tourists. Since 1997, a flat tariff was, however, introduced with USD 200 per day per head for both culture and trekking tourists. Today, the daily minimum tariffs are USD 250 and USD 200 for the peak and lean season respectively.
And while tourism may be an important source of national revenue while showcasing the country’s unique culture and traditions to the outside world, Bhutan, has however, constantly maintained that it shouldn’t come at the cost of the depletion of its natural assets and the erosion of our values and traditions. Bhutan’s arcane way of life, culture, religion and pristine environment are its comparative advantages and the main tourist attractions and the country has made conscious efforts to promote and preserve these for sustainability of tourism.
The growth of the tourism sector is, therefore, a befitting example of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck vision – fostering a balanced society by promoting tradition, culture and environmental preservation.
Another key factor in the success of tourism in Bhutan has been the privatization of the sector in 1991. Instead of state monopoly, the privatization of the tourism industry opened up the business to Bhutanese entrepreneurs. Such a move was also a part of the reform, decentralization and democratization process the Fourth Druk Gyalpo had continued since his accession to the throne on June 2, 1974.
The Royal Government had since the Sixth Five Year Plan proclaimed that the private sector should play an increasingly important role in fostering economic growth and as a source of employment. The private sector should become the main engine of the nation’s future economic growth, His Majesty has reiterated throughout his reign. Consequently, the privatization of the tourism industry can be understood as a microcosm of the impetus given to the private sector and the decentralization process under the reign of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo.
However, in recent years, recognizing the vulnerability of the tourism sector given the societal transition and the adverse impact an increased influx of tourist arrivals could have on the culture and environment if not managed properly, Bhutan remodeled the national tourism strategy based on ‘high value, low impact’ approach.
As reflected in the 2001 Ecotourism Strategy (2001), ecotourism reportedly is a style of tourism that positively enhances the conservation of the environment, cultural and religious heritage, and responds to the needs of local communities. It’s, therefore, envisaged that ‘high value, low impact’ strategy would help handle the increasing volume of tourists visiting Bhutan, without limitation in the numbers, in the next decade, while lowering impact on both nature and culture.
All this has been possible because of the exemplary vision of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo – Bhutan’s foremost conservationist. He is the reason our conservation policies are what they are today and the reason behind Bhutan having done a fair share in environment conservation globally too, and perhaps much more than any other country.
Published with permission from TCB .
Author: Namkhai Norbu