Google Of­fers Peek Into Bhutan With Street View Launch

Bhutan Times - - Editorial -

G oogle pro­vided a sneak peek into Bhutan Thurs­day by un­veil­ing a Street View project for the re­mote Hi­malayan king­dom, fea­tur­ing panoramic views of its ma­jes­tic moun­tains, monas­ter­ies and crys­tal­clear rivers.

The “Land of the Thun­der Dragon” has long been one of the most iso­lated coun­tries on earth, only lifting its ban on tele­vi­sion in 1999. Most for­eign tourists have to pay a min­i­mum $200 a day to visit.

But in a sign of its more re­cent embrace of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, the gov­ern­ment al­lowed Google to un­der­take a Street View project that could showcase some its nat­u­ral trea­sures for In­ter­net users.

“Most gov­ern­ments love Street View be­cause it pro­motes tourism - they are drawn to its com­mer­cial ben­e­fits,” Google’s Divon Lan, one of the Street View man­agers, told AFP on Thurs­day as the project was launched.

“In Bhutan, the con­ver­sa­tion was very dif­fer­ent - es­sen­tially along the lines of ‘how can we bring Bhutan to the world with­out hav­ing floods of tourists turn up and erode our cul­ture?’”

The year-long project kicked off in March 2013 with a Street View car trav­el­ling across the coun­try’s 3,000-kilo­me­tre road net­work.

The car, mounted with a cus­tom-built cam­era con­tain­ing 15 lenses that recorded more than a mil­lion pho­tos, drew some cu­ri­ous re­sponses dur­ing its jour­ney, Lan said in an in­ter­view in the sleepy cap­i­tal Thimphu.

“Vil­lagers would see this strange-look­ing car and ask the driver about it. When he told them it was be­ing used to take pho­tos, they would get very ex­cited and try to peer inside,” added Lan, who was in­volved in the dig­i­tal map­ping of Cam­bo­dia’s Angkor Wat tem­ple com­plex.

The re­sult­ing stream of rapid-fire 75 megapixel images of­fers au­di­ences a view of a land seen by very few, with the coun­try wel­com­ing its first tourists just 40 years ago.

Since then, its stun­ning scenery and its rep­u­ta­tion as a Bud­dhist “Shangri-La” has at­tracted tourists, but num­bers are tightly con­trolled.

As well as be­ing able to catch a glimpse of Thimphu, vir­tual vis­i­tors will now be able to see attractions such as a 17th cen­tury monastery known as the “Palace of Hap­pi­ness” in the for­mer cap­i­tal of Punakha.

Other sites in­clude the na­tional mu­seum which is housed in a 17th cen­tury watch­tower in the town of Paro and the Trongsa Dzong, the coun­try’s largest fortress which over­looks a rocky river gorge in cen­tral Bhutan.

De­spite its past rep­u­ta­tion as a hold-out against the 20th cen­tury’s ad­vances, Bhutan has be­come some­thing of a cham­pion of the In­ter­net and mo­bile tech­nol­ogy era.

It has a largely ru­ral pop­u­la­tion of just 750,000, but Bhutan’s two cel­lu­lar net­works have 550,000 sub­scribers. And the last of­fi­cial fig­ures in 2012 showed more than 120,000 Bhutanese had some kind of mo­bile In­ter­net con­nec- tiv­ity.

Del­i­cate bal­ance Tourists how­ever say the re­mote­ness of a coun­try which is wedged be­tween China and In­dia re­mains its main at­trac­tion.

Its ap­proach to tourism re­flects “an in­cred­i­bly del­i­cate bal­ance” be­tween seclu­sion and open­ness, said Melissa Biggs Bradley, CEO and founder of the lux­ury travel web­site Inda­gare. com.

“One of the great ap­peals to the tourist is how closed it is, how rare it is to see another tourist and there­fore how easy it is to have mean­ing­ful ex­changes with lo­cals,” Bradley, who vis­ited Bhutan for the first time last month, told AFP.

Her views were echoed by Mary Jane South, a 52-year-old Cana­dian on her maiden visit to the coun­try.

South told AFP Bhutan of­fered “more of a road less trav­eled ex­pe­ri­ence” com­pared to neigh­bours like Nepal, which saw 800,000 vis­i­tors last year, nearly eight times the num­ber recorded by Thimphu.

( Source - NDTV Gad­gets )

Dam­cho Rinzin, spokesman for the na­tional Tourism Coun­cil of Bhutan, said that while vis­i­tors were wel­come, the coun­try did not want to be­come just another trav­ellers’ des­ti­na­tion.

The push to pre­serve tra­di­tional cul­ture is re­flected in the tra­di­tional cloth­ing worn by men and women - manda­tory at pub­lic func­tions and of­fices.

“Google Street View is a way of pre­serv­ing our cul­ture at a time of great change. It re­minds us of what we have in Bhutan,” Rinzin said.

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