Bhutan strives for bal­ance as tourism drives its econ­omy

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THIMPHU, Bhutan - As it ush­ers in “Visit Bhutan Year” in the hope of boost­ing tourism, the tiny moun­tain­ous coun­try in South Asia faces the chal­lenge of find­ing a bal­ance be­tween get­ting its econ­omy back on track and pre­serv­ing its unique cul­ture and en­vi­ron­ment.

No doubt, tourism has been a ma­jor source of in­come for this iso­lated land­locked Bud­dhist king­dom known for its unique and un­spoiled land­scape and cul­ture.

And as Bhutan looks for­ward to get­ting out of the eco­nomic dol­drums that re­sulted from years of un­con­trolled growth, tourism is likely to play an im­por­tant role.

While de­scrib­ing tourism as one of the “jew­els” of the Bhutanese econ­omy, Eco­nomic Af­fairs Min­is­ter Norbu Wangchuk ad­mit­ted that strik­ing the right bal­ance be­tween wel­com­ing more tourists and en­sur­ing that its cul­ture, its tra­di­tional ways of life and the en­vi­ron­ment can be pre­served has al­ways been a con­cern.

Since open­ing up the coun­try to tourism in 1974, Bhutan has adopted a “high value, low im­pact” tourism pol­icy, which the min­is­ter de­scribed as a con­trolled and cau­tious ap­proach to en­sure that the coun­try de­rives the most ben­e­fits from tourism with­out sac­ri­fic­ing its cul­ture and en­vi­ron­ment.

“We are mind­ful about [han­dling] tourism pol­icy very cau­tiously so that we are not over­whelmed with mas­sive num­bers of tourists that would re­sult in los­ing the very essence of tourism, which is cul­ture, our Bhutanese val­ues and our en­vi­ron­ment,” he told The Na­tion in an in­ter­view re­cently.

The min­is­ter em­pha­sised that Bhutan fol­lowed an en­vi­ron­ment-friendly, so­cially and cul­tur­ally sen­si­tive tourism pol­icy.

“We be­lieve that ben­e­fits from tourism must trickle down to peo­ple at the grass-root lev­els. So the em­pha­sis is on en­gag­ing the com­mu­nity stake­hold­ers in our tourism sec­tor so that ben­e­fits from tourism are en­joyed by peo­ple in ru­ral ar­eas,” he said.

Visit Bhutan Year will high­light a se­ries of tourism events across the coun­try to com­mem­o­rate the 60th birth­day of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the coun­try’s fourth king, who ab­di­cated in 2006 in favour of his son.

It is de­signed both to pro­mote do­mes­tic tourism and to at­tract in­ter­na­tional and re­gional tourists. But at the same time, vis­i­tors will also see brand-new shop­ping ar­eas, young Bhutanese in Western­style dress, and heavy traf­fic dur­ing cer­tain hours - things that were not around a few years back. Tar­iff to stay Bhutanese tourism of­fi­cials, how­ever, have sug­gested that its pol­icy of im­pos­ing a daily min­i­mum tar­iff of US$250 (S$334) a day for tourists will re­main un­changed, while its visa-is­su­ing process will not be any eas­ier.

Tourists will still be re­quired to en­ter Bhutan through travel agen­cies, and in­di­vid­ual ar­rivals are dis­cour­aged.

Norbu Wangchuk said th­ese mea­sures were nec­es­sary to en­sure that “only those who re­ally want to visit Bhutan will make it”.

But there is good news for Thais want­ing to visit the coun­try. Last year, Bhutan and Thai­land signed a friend­ship pro­gramme de­signed to en­cour­age Thais to visit the Hi­malayan coun­try.

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