Can Tra­di­tional Bhutan Sur­vive Tourism?

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - Cour­tesy: Esha Ch­habra , The Daily Beast

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.

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