Prospect of Mass Tourism Clouds Bhutan’s Shangri-La

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - (Cour­tesy : Voice of Amer­ica)

NEW DELHI, IN­DIA: Bhutan, a land of pris­tine beauty that re­stricts the num­bers of over­seas visi­tors, is fac­ing pres­sure to al­low more tourists to in­crease in­comes and cre­ate more jobs. But there are fears that mass tourism could threaten the tiny Hi­malayan coun­try’s ef­forts to pre­serve it­self as the world’s last Shangri-La

Af­ter a day spent gaz­ing at breath­tak­ing moun­tain passes, an awe-in­spir­ing 17th cen­tury Bud­dhist fortress-like monastery perched on a lush hill­top, and emer­ald green rice fields on the banks of a gush­ing river, a large group of In­dian tourists re­laxes at a sprawl­ing 50room ho­tel that opened in Pu­nakha last year.

“I see more of In­dian peo­ple com­ing to our ho­tel,” said Karma Phuntsho, the ho­tel’s owner. “Over­all in Bhutan, I think slowly In­dian tourists will be dom­i­nat­ing our mar­ket.”

New ho­tels are mul­ti­ply­ing

In re­cent years, new ho­tels have mush­roomed in Bhutan and more are un­der con­struc­tion. Roads are be­ing widened both to cope with the in­flux of ve­hi­cles fer­ry­ing tourists and to build new hy­dro­elec­tric projects.

But while tourism is boom­ing, Bhutan’s plans to be­come a high-end des­ti­na­tion for dol­lar-pay­ing tourists are not go­ing quite as hoped.

High daily tar­iff dis­cour­ages West­ern tourists

The coun­try im­poses a high tar­iff of $ 250 per day for lodg­ing, food and travel for visi­tors from out­side South Asia to pro­mote a pol­icy of “high value, low im­pact.” But the num­ber of West­ern tourists is plum­met­ing as this steep tar­iff dis­cour­ages many visi­tors from the United States and high-in­come coun­tries in Europe, which have faced sev­eral years of eco­nomic tur­bu­lence.

How­ever, tourists from neigh­bor­ing In­dia, who are not re­quired to spend the min­i­mum per day tar­iff, are ar­riv­ing in large num­bers as their econ­omy booms. They made up nearly two-thirds of the roughly 100,000 visi­tors to the quaint Hi­malayan coun­try last year.

Di­vi­sion on tourism is­sue

Now Bhutanese are split down the mid­dle, both in the gov­ern­ment and the tourism in­dus­try. While some are call­ing for reg­u­lat­ing re­gional visi­tors, oth­ers are clam­or­ing for Bhutan to open up by do­ing away with the min­i­mum tar­iff im­posed on visi­tors from coun­tries out­side South Asia.

Tourism is the coun­try’s sec­ond big­gest in­dus­try and pro­vides the most jobs. Ho­tel owner Phuntsho points out that besides em­ploy­ing 75 peo­ple, his ho­tel pro­vides a much-needed boost for lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties.

“We buy a lot of veg­eta­bles from our farm­ers and then also we try to give pri­or­ity to the lo­cal peo­ple, to em­ploy peo­ple from this na­tive place,” he said.

But oth­ers worry that this land­locked na­tion of about 750,000 could lose the care­fully cul­ti­vated mys­tique of a coun­try that has con­sciously steered away from Asia’s fren­zied rush to mod­ern­iza­tion and eco­nomic progress and pi­o­neered the con­cept of gross na­tional hap­pi­ness in place of gross do­mes­tic prod­uct.

Money can’t buy what Bhutan pos­sesses

Gay­ley Yang­zon, who re­cently opened a ho­tel in Paro, is among a hand­ful of Bhutanese who has trav­eled the world. Of­ten ques­tioned about what is dif­fer­ent in Bhutan, she says, “The na­ture, the air, no amount of money can buy this air, the for­est, the flow­ers. We may not be so rich, but we have our own rich­ness.”

And while the tourist trade is push­ing to open up the sec­tor to boost the econ­omy, some in the in­dus­try are aware of the risks. Among those op­posed to mass tourism is one of Bhutan’s lead­ing tour op­er­a­tors, Karma Lotey.

“We are very vul­ner­a­ble, such a small coun­try, small so­ci­ety, the cul­ture, the tra­di­tion, every­thing is small and once we open up to mass tourism, there can be stam­pede, it can be­come very suf­fo­cat­ing,” he frets. “It is very im­por­tant for us to pro­tect our niche, the spe­cial things that we have in the coun­try.”

Like many oth­ers, Lotey wants mea­sures to con­trol re­gional tourists. He points to some who are “crowd­ing six to seven in a room, crowd­ing eight to nine, 10 peo­ple in a Balero (SUV), bringing their own things to cook and camp.” That’s very dif­fer­ent from the high-spend­ing tourist the coun­try set out to woo.

Min­is­ters and law­mak­ers are pon­der­ing on how to move ahead. Among those who keenly watched a re­cent lively de­bate in par­lia­ment was free­lance tourist guide Sonam Dorji.

He has much at stake. Dorji says com­pared to be­ing em­ployed for about three months when he started work­ing in 2002, he is now fully oc­cu­pied for eight months, show­ing visi­tors around the coun­try or guid­ing them as they trek up moun­tains.

“Now there are big changes be­cause there are lots of tourists, there are lots of op­por­tu­ni­ties for us and we have enough work and we are even hop­ing to get it bet­ter in fu­ture,” he says.

Dorji, who has two young chil­dren and am­bi­tions to open a res­tau­rant one day, says Bhutanese “as a whole, they are against the mass tourism, but we al­ways dream to have enough work.”

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