King Who Showed Bhutan to the World

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

Unwind with a Hot Stone Bath

One of the best way to unwind after a long day in Bhutan is the HOT STONE BATH (Dotsho or Menchu). Traditionally, practiced since ages in Bhutan. It is not only practiced as a comforting SOAK but also to treat various alignments. Soaking in Menchu with (Water with medicinal properties) is one of the favorite activities for Bhutanese, especially during the winters.

The hot stone bath is a ritual in itself, riverside rocks are heated till red hot and gradually dropped into a wooden tub filled with water and scattered with Artemisia leaves. The burning rocks heats the water gradually and thus release minerals in to the water. Traditionally these bath are done near a river bed with plenty supplies of stones and water and preferably after dark in the open air. However, more luxurious version of hot stone bath are offered by different hotels and resorts, which are more suitable to the general standards of visitor. It is still kept authentic to a certain level were a visitor can enjoy the bath in a traditional way without having to feel the discomfort. A hot cup of tea or a glass of locally brewed wine can be a cherry topping to the whole experience, don’t forget to keep yourself hydrated.

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One other way to enjoy the hot mineral water would be the natural hot spring (Tshachu) scattered all over the country. While, accessibility can be a challenge, nothing would beat the experience of natural Himalayan water. The hot springs are believed to have lots of medicinal purposes depending on the location of the hot spring. Few of the hot springs are:

Gasa Hot Springs: Spring is located in banks of Mochu River in Gasa valley and approximately half an hour walk from the nearest road point. There are three bath-house, one big and two smaller pools. The temperature of water in each pool is different, so that visitors can choose the one that best suites them. Private experience is not available.

Chuba Hot Spring: Is located on the backs of Pho chu river and it takes a day journey from Punakha town. It is often recommend to camp overnight.

Dur Hot Spring: Is located in Bumthang valley.

Weekend Farmers Market in Thimphu

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Thimphu weekend market is by far the largest domestic market for the farmers of Bhutan. Farmers from as far as Lingshi in the north, Tashiyangtse in the east, and Sarpang, Dagana and Tsirang in the south bring their farm products to the market and are reportedly 100% ORGANIC. Bhutan aspires to 100 percent organic by 2020. The veggies in Bhutan are way delicious, must be the air and non-use of pesticides. Perhaps you might be lucky to pick up some freshly picked Mashutake mushrooms – I love these.  The weekend market is not just in the capital, it happens all over the country over the span of two days (Saturday and Sunday). If you want to meet locals, this place is the right place. It’s on a weekend and everyone is free and around to talk to you. So go on have a one on one conversation with someone you pick from the crowd of people. I assure you they will talk to you….Bhutanese are generally very friendly and easy to talk to.

thimphu_weekend_market The farmers market has also turned out to be one of the most favored spots for tourists and a recreational place for people from all walks of life. Initially, the market was open only on the weekends but now it is almost open throughout the week. It may not be as colorful as on weekends.
Across a cantilever footbridge, Kuendeyling Bazam, to the west bank is a collection of stalls housing clothing, fabric and handicrafts. If you are a collector of antiques and traditional artifacts, this is the right place. You could strike a good bargain. Handicrafts and souvenirs are a lot cheaper at this particular bazaar….however may not be 100% bhutanese**.he he !

Looking for Sakten

The 10-day trip to Merak and Sakteng was one of the best experiences that I ever had of trekking and hiking in the mountains. Although I had to walk for almost 10 grueling hours on alternate days, the journey was worth the while. So did someone rightly say: An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered. The gentle walk along the gurgling river and uphill climb through steep slopes on the rocky mountains, splashed with beautiful greenery all around, is in fact what defines the journey to Merak and Sakteng. But if you are traveling in monsoon, be prepared to face the leeches. Just a note of caution. When you reach the highland and heave a sigh of relief, another ordeal is just waiting to happen. Brace up for the ara session the brokpas call dey chang, their way of welcoming guests. There is no escaping the dey chang, even if you are a teetotaler. They literally hold your mouth open and pour the ara into your mouth. It may sound rude or even brutal, but that’s a culture the brokpas strongly hold. So when in Merak or Sakteng, it’s better to be a brokpa.

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The icing on the cake, especially for the male visitors is that the prettiest of girls are selected to serve the guests. I woke up the morning after, still feeling dizzy from the previous night’s drinking. The serene mountain environment, the sound of the wind and chirping of the birds were like natural balm to the hangover. Around seven in the morning, the fog retreats and gives way to the first rays of the sun. It’s another day, already. At 4,300 meters above the sea level and at the highest pass between Merak and Sakteng, overlooking terrains that have been conquered, I felt a surreal feeling as if I have reached the top of the world. The calm is broken by human madness around, a few worried about altitude sickness. And it can be quite scary. One of our team mates fell sick and had to be moved to a lower altitude immediately. Besides the arcane culture of the highland that is now open to tourism, one thing that caught my interest was the cute Tibetan Mastiff puppies. Fluffy, snow white puppies for sale for sale. There was nearly a row over who would buy the dogs as there were only two best puppies everyone wanted and 13 of us vying to the best one. So an auction was done. I backed out of the auction because I realized that I could not have taken care of the dog all by myself in my two bedroom apartment. Two of them took the puppiess and even named one Sakteng. Walking back with contentment in my life and a sense of achievement, the bummer was we lost Sakteng the moment we reached the road point. Sakteng, the dog. We went looking for it everywhere, but for vain. The owner of the dog even called up a shaman back in his village to find out if Sakteng could be found. Yet to no avail. It is a mystery we came back with. For once I thought it was ominous; did it mean something, of this world that is not yet ready to open up? May be I was being too superstitious but the thought haunted me for a while. I travelled back home thinking of both the Saktengs!

I met a man from Laya

It was on a Tuesday morning, I had gone to Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) for reporting and there I was sitting in a yellow painted four wall room interviewing a guy. The interview had stretched for almost an hour and I was kinda getting bored. Then suddenly an old man in his 60’s, wearing a black gho walked in to the room. In my mind i was thinking, “Phew, I will get some break now.”
The other guy that I was interviewing started to talk to him and was so lost in the conversation that for a moment he forgot that I was sitting right next to him. But me being my self, turned on my ears for news and started to listen to them.
“I am so glad that I could meet dasho today, I was here earlier but could not meet you,” said the old man.
“Oh I was in Gasa for some work,” said the other guy.
“I am so glad that you are helping me with my guest house,” said the old man.
“How is it going, is it ready?” asked the other guy.

DPP_0041 They kept on going about the guest house and the old man talked about his toilet facilities, showing photographs of the guest house. Then for a while the conversation stopped and I intruded asking the man where he was from. He replied saying LAYA but nothing sticked me. Turning around from the table and sipping the cup of tea that was there I was writing my article that I had come for in my mind (that is something we are taught to do, the moment we get a news).
It was after 20 minutes that i realized there are no guest house, hotels or restaurants in Laya. Then I asked the other guy, “Is it the first guest house in Laya?” and he replied “YES” What could make me happier then knowing that I would be writing about the first guest house in Laya from Thimphu.
After that I couldn’t help myself but to intrude the conversation and get all the details that I needed. I sat there for hours and then found out that the guy from laya has a name and it is Tshering.
Our conversation went on and on and on till i reached my office. But still it did not satisfy me. I called him up and asked him to come to my office. The poor guy was on his way for lunch but agreed to meet me.
We sat near the office kerosene heater and he told me that he has over 100 yaks back in laya and he was one of those who brought the first school in his village. He also started a dratshang, which has about 30 monks studying there. Then he took a plastic rapped papers from his black torn bag to show me a page from 1987 kuensel, which had advertised for school.
In the midst of the conversation and the 1987 kuensel I forgot that he missed his lunch for me. Then after the interview, I took Tshering to a traditional Bhutanese hotel for lunch. He had shikam, jaju, suja and red rice. He surprised me with the amount of food he could eat and he knew I was looking at him. “I eat a lot and mostly people my age from villages eat a lot,” he said. Then to make him feel comfortable I told him about my grandmother and lied to him saying that she would eat as much.
The old man from Laya, wearing a white Olympic hat and I parted below the orange Business Bhutan sign board.