Can Traditional Bhutan Survive Tourism?
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.
Bhutan is commonly described as “heaven on earth.”
Heaven, though, has been getting a lot of visitors recently.
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, despite the daily $250 tariff (which includes basic food, accommodations, transport, and a guide). Visitors from India, Bhutan’s neighbor, however, still dominate in terms of annual visitors, largely because they’re excused from the tariff.
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.
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-thewall 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 1,000 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.