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About the Author

Robert Stefanicki
Journalist (Warsaw, Poland)

Old salt international affairs writer. At present freelance (looking for a job!), most of his professional life worked for the largest daily in Poland. Focused on Asia and Middle East, where witnessed some dirty wars, now more and more interested in development and other global issues. In collusion with Institute of Global Responsibility, our new and fast growing NGO. Self made photographer (see my website), scuba diver, sailor, cyclist and movie addict.

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BHUTAN: Paradise not lost (yet)

Published 20th June 2010 - 13 comments - 4283 views -

Thanks to alternative attitude to tourism, Bhutan remains one of the most unreachable and least destroyed countries in the world. How long yet? Its government wants to quadraple the number of visitors by 2012.

Perhaps a better term than “unreachable” would be “exclusive”. The exclusivity derives from the fact that individual tourists are not allowed there. The only way to visit Bhutan as a tourist is by paying for an organized trip purchased through an authorised travel agency. It will cost you at least $200 per day ($250 since 2011) plus airfare and visa.

 

Cheli La pass, Bhutan. Photo by retlaw snellac on flickr.com

 

There has been some talk on Th!nk3 about “eco tourism” – Bhutan shows another face of it: it is eco, but only for the rich, not for students or blue-collars. This policy is called "high value-low volume" tourism, and has been deliberately adpoted by the government since inception of tourism in the year 1974.

Bhutan vs Nepal

Kingdom of Bhutan took very different path than Kingdom of Nepal, where tourism developed uncontrollably (except high Himalaya climbing). 36 years on, it is interesting to compare both countries.

In 2009, more than 28,000 tourists visited Bhutan and over 500,000 Nepal. Despite the “luxury tax” tourism contribution to Bhutan’s GDP was a measly six percent and the employ­ment generated only 2% of the total. In Nepal the sector contributes a 17.11 percent to the GDP, providing direct and indirect employment to 4% of the nation.

At a price. Some popular destinations in Nepal Himalayas are already overcrowded. Trails frequently visited by tourists have been nicknamed "Coca-Cola trail" and "Toilet paper trail". Rafting and kayaking are leading to pollution in the country's rivers. Kathmandu Valley is at risk from booming Himalayan ski market. The construction of a road in remote Mustang area is destroying the mountain environment.

On the contrary, the government of Bhutan has been prized for preserving and protecting both their environment and original culture. Pristine nature remains untrampled by boots of countless tourists, crime remains well under control, environment remains sustainable, society harmonious. Incidentally, Bhutan is one of the top 20 Happiest Countries in the World in the Happy Planet Index.

According to local researcher Tandi Dorji, tourism contributes significantly to rural incomes through earnings from transport and portage. It has also provided the impetus for the development of the service sector, including hotels, restaurants, transportation and communication. Another visible impact of tourism has been the promotion of the indigenous cottage industry and the setting up of handicraft shops in frequently visited areas.

Still, there are problems. One: the destruction of vegetation through the cutting of slow-growing trees for firewood, particularly in high alpine regions. The use of horses and yaks during treks have a significant impact on erosion of delicate vegetation. Local residents tend to increase the size of domestic herds for transport contracts with the tourism industry, which adds to the limited carrying capacity of fragile mountain ecosystems. Some people also argue that interactions with tourists have led to the erosion of Bhutanese culture and value systems.

Several steps have been taken by the government to address these problems. The Department of Tourism has banned the use of firewood on treks. Tour operators now use liquid petroleum gas or kerosene. The Department has also constructed permanent campsites, rest houses and toilet facilities along the more popular trek routes. All plastic bags are banned.

Uncertain future

The untapped profits are tempting. In a February meeting, the stakeholders of tourism and the government in Thimphu decided on numerous reforms that will bring in 100,000 tourists by 2012. Aviation capacities – today’s bottleneck to tourism – will be built internationally and locally. Hotels will be classified on the basis of stars and their facilities mandatory upgraded. A capacity for an additional 2,500 beds will be created. 100% foreign investment will be allowed in the construction of five-star hotels, and 70% in the four-stars. Amenities for visa processing online, credit card and tourist informa­tion will be developed.

 

Monks play ceremonial instruments during the coronation ceremony of Bhutan's fifth King. Photo by Reuters

 

Nepal, recentrly relieved from a civil war, has similar plans: the government in Kathmandu aims at two million visitors annually arriving by 2020. I made a quick count: this means 7 tourists on each 100 Nepal citizens (in fact less, because in 10 years, with high population growth, there will be much more Nepalese than today). If the hopes of the Bhutan government come into being, this would mean over 14 foreign visitors for each 100 Bhutanese (there are only 700,000 of them) in just two years – twice as much as in Nepal!

And in fact much more, because Indian visitors are not counted and do not have to pay $200 per day. The Gross National Happiness Commission (government planning body) and a team of experts from McKinsey, a consultancy firm, have recently projected an increase in tourist arrival to 250,000 annually within the next three to five years. The number includes high-end as well as regional (Indian) tourists.

250,000 makes over one third of the population. This is still considerably less than in Egypt, where the number of tourists is two times greater than its population – but does Bhutan aspire to follow Egypt?

Doing away with “luxury tax” system is being discussed. The increased number of tourists would lead to economic benefits, but then there must be repercussions on the culture and environment. The brand of Bhutan in the eyes of the world will be gone.

One blogger from Bhutan noticed: “Being a country promoting the land of happiness we also need to share our happiness with other people who wish to visit our country and enjoy its beauty. We cannot deprive some and give the opportunity to only those who have big purse. Therefore, the govt. must strike a balance of all these.”

A dillema

I’d love to visit Bhutan on my own, without a package tour and hefty tax. I also would like to know that there is a place on Earth resisting mass tourism and mass profits. Eat cake or have it?


Category: Tourism | Tags: tourism, nepal, bhutan,


Comments

  • Iwona Frydryszak on 20th June 2010:

    nice. would like to visit Bhutan as well. I’m just wondering how it’s possible that rafting is the case of pollution…


  • Andrea Arzaba on 20th June 2010:

    this sounds like one utopia! I understand that we want to visit a country that remains “almost untouched” by mass tourism…but if the government alouds us to enter without a group, then this status will dissapear as many tourists will be attracted to this “virgin paradise”... I loved the way you end your article. You left me th!nking about it smile


  • Giedre Steikunaite on 20th June 2010:

    I see you decided to take up the Bhutan case Robert! Really interesting.

    I would say, have the cake. Don’t eat it. They managed fine until now, they can continue doing so. However, the fact that money decides if one enters Bhutan or not is disturbing. It’s always the rich who are more equal than others. On the other hand, how else can the system work…


  • Robert Stefanicki on 21st June 2010:

    @Iwona: I think with rafting and trekking the problem is similar - people enter the environment, make the camps, litter, cut trees for fire.

    @Giedre: EU has recently declared that tourism is a human right and pensioners, youths and those too poor to afford it should have their travel subsidised by the taxpayer. A quote after London Times: “Under the scheme, British pensioners could be given cut-price trips to Spain, while Greek teenagers could be taken around disused mills in Manchester to experience the cultural diversity of Europe.”
    How about vouchers for Bhutan?


  • Johan Knols on 21st June 2010:

    Hello Robert,

    The situation in Bhutan is the same one as Botswana was experiencing in the 80’s. ‘Low volume - high cost tourism’ was (and still is to some extend) the magic word. Yet, the fact that tourism was so well organized and only few (the rich) people visited, made this country more and more popular and the demand rose to such a level that the pressure from money was hard to resist.
    Some time back I wrote a blogpost about Botswana’s (luxury) problem.
    For those wanting to have a peep: http://planyoursafari.com/blog/strangling-the-safari-industry-in-botswana/


  • Giedre Steikunaite on 22nd June 2010:

    Robert, somehow I missed this EU idea. Really? So how does it work then? I declare it my human right to fly over a weekend to get some Spanish sun? And then the taxpayer signs the check?

    Oh, and how was Lithuania for you? I’m jealous! wink


  • Robert Stefanicki on 22nd June 2010:

    @Giedre: Seems to be just one of numerous EU ideas, great but unimplementable. I remember it came up in the midst of volcano crisis, very promptly… Lithuania is nice, Nida was what I liked most -  no time to walk the dunes, regrettably.


  • Iwona Frydryszak on 22nd June 2010:

    I did rafting in Zambezi, and I couldn’t notice that it cased a lot of pollution. Local people, working in tourism seemed to look after about that. But maybe it was illusion or Western influence are most of the companies are own by Americans or Europeans…


  • Giedre Steikunaite on 22nd June 2010:

    I’m happy you liked Nida. It’s such a nice place, the whole Curonian Spit… I wish I could go this summer, too.

    But they have problems, too. For example, illegal buildings that nobody dares to take away even after the court ordered them to do so. Belongs to the most famous basketball player in Lithuania. Money, you see.


  • Robert Stefanicki on 23rd June 2010:

    @Iwona: Likewise, I am reluctant to join an orthodox camp saying tourism is all evil and stay at home, no way. But it’s better when authorities and tourist, in Bhutan and elsewhere, are alerted to the problem (even a potential one) than to deny it. Nobody claims that rafting or trekking always causes pollution - but it happens.


  • Sylwia Presley on 25th July 2010:

    Brilliant story, thank you for sharing! Made me want to travel there now!


  • Hussam Hussein on 25th July 2010:

    When I read these kind of stories, as also Sylwia said, I also feel like seeing these places with my eyes… hope to do so soon!


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