Bhutan or bust: Sell­ing Shangri-la at a premium

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - ( Source : World Travel Guide)

Is the world’s most ex­pen­sive visa fee a way for tourists to pay for Bhutan’s road to riches? Or is Bhutan truly the last Shangri-la? Kara Fox in­ves­ti­gates.

At first glance, Bhutan is just that – a mag­i­cal land­scape seem­ingly im­mune to the pull of the ever-tight­en­ing grip of moder­nity. Sit­u­ated at a dizzy­ing 2235 me­ters above sea level, most jour­neys be­gin with a steep des­cent into Bhutan’s sole in­ter­na­tional air­port. The ad­ven­tur­ous flight in can feel as rea­son enough to want to visit – a mix of al­ti­tude, ex­cite­ment and vi­brant green rice pad­dies grow­ing in the shadow of im­pos­ing Hi­malayan snow-capped peaks will cre­ate a pun­gent cock­tail of sen­sory over­load for even the most ex­pe­ri­enced trav­eller. The Bhutanese word na­masame lit­er­ally trans­lates as ‘be­tween the heav­ens and the Earth’ – and land­ing in Paro town can feel that’s ex­actly where you’ve ar­rived.

Like all for­eign­ers, my ex­pe­ri­ence in Bhutan be­gan by be­ing greeted at the air­port and whisked away to Paro town, a world of white washed houses, quaint road­side veg­etable ven­dors and tidy, wind­ing roads.

A few months ear­lier I had been of­fered a job work­ing at a lux­ury re­sort in Paro town. Se­cur­ing a work­ing visa al­lowed me to avoid pay­ing the manda­tory $250 per day visa costs, which clips most trav­ellers’ trips to about a week or two max­i­mum. The lux­ury of this ‘free time’ al­lowed me to form more last­ing friend­ships, to learn Dzongkha, the national lan­guage, and to adapt my taste buds to the national dish, ema datse – a diet of never end­ing chill­ies and cheese. But most im­por­tantly, it al­lowed me to gain a more coloured per­spec­tive into the friendly de­bate be­tween tourism’s model Bud­dhist pleas­antries and the Bhutanese in­ter­nal­iza­tion of those ideas.

When I ar­rived I rapidly be­gan to no­tice the dis­crep­ancy be­tween what I had thought ex­isted as a land un­touched by moder­nity in this ‘ShangriLa’ ver­sus its re­al­ity. Tour guides sport­ing Oak­ley sun­glasses walked around the town in tra­di­tional ghos (a large man-skirt of sorts), com­pli­mented by knee high socks. Old women spin­ning prayer wheels in one hand could be seen typ­ing on their iPads in the other. Monks on mo­biles, DJs at dis­cos spin­ning top 40 tracks, ev­ery­one un­der 30 ob­sessed with so­cial me­dia. Was this so for­eign af­ter all?

Maybe I was un­fairly spot­ting ob­vi­ous phys­i­cal jux­ta­po­si­tions, es­pe­cially in to­day’s glob­alised world. But in a place that mar­kets devel­op­ment and tourism with an of­fi­cial pol­icy of Gross National Hap­pi­ness over Gross National Prod­uct it seems bliss­fully ig­no­rant to ex­pe­ri­ence Bhutan only for what the tourism coun­cil en­cour­ages you to see.

In or­der to un­der­stand Bhutan’s cur­rent con­nec­tion to a world ‘long gone’ and its mar­keted nos­tal­gia, we should look to its past.

As Bhutan’s neigh­bours, China and In­dia em­barked on its devel­op­ment jour­ney dur­ing the 1950’s they be­gan to of­fer its cit­i­zens some of the ben­e­fits of devel­op­ment such as ed­u­ca­tion, trans­port and health­care ser­vices. In com­par­i­son, Bhutan was be­ing rapidly left be­hind in pro­vid­ing so­cial wel­fare for its peo­ple. This cre­ated the de­sire amongst lead­ers, specif­i­cally the 4th King, to kick-start Bhutanese devel­op­ment in the early 1960s – con­cen­trat­ing on ba­sic in­fra­struc­ture such as schools, hos­pi­tals and roads, seen as vi­tal for cre­at­ing a so­cial safety net. Bhutan, how­ever, was start­ing from a very dif­fer­ent place than its big­ger neigh­bours. At the time, the man­u­fac­tur­ing sec­tor was seen as the best point of en­try in to the world’s econ­omy for de­vel­op­ing na­tions, a sec­tor Bhutan was un­likely to suc­ceed in due to its small, dis­parate and un­der-ed­u­cated pop­u­la­tion, matched with no roads and lit­tle elec­tric­ity. Uniquely, lead­ers also stressed the im­por­tance of main­tain­ing re­li­gious piety whilst man­ag­ing these de­vel­op­men­tal changes. This in­evitably led to some dif­fi­cult ques­tions: how to fund such ex­pen­sive projects when you have none of the means, or de­sire to mimic devel­op­ment or­tho­doxy?

Des­per­ately need­ing to earn for­eign ex­change, devel­op­ment plan­ners quickly iden­ti­fied their cul­tural her­itage as their most lu­cra­tive as­set and set about cre­at­ing a ‘Bud­dhist in­spired’ plat­form that still char­ac­terises its tourist in­dus­try. By un­abashedly tar­get­ing ‘qual­ity’ tourism, the King­dom’s au­to­cratic rulers hoped to both raise rev­enue whilst pre­serv­ing cul­tural in­tegrity, cre­at­ing a vi­sion of ‘sus­tain­able tourism’ decades be­fore that buzz­word was first coined.

As such, the ‘Land that Time For­got’ opened its doors to its first in­ter­na­tional tourists in 1974. Num­bers were kept to a min­i­mum and the stress on cul­tural learn­ing. Visa costs were set at pro­hib­i­tively high lev­els to dis­cour­age all but the most com­mit­ted (and af­flu­ent) trav­eller while max­imis­ing rev­enue for the bur­geon­ing so­cial pro­grams. Ex­cept for a few small de­tails, the plat­form has re­mained un­changed since. Al­though num­bers are no longer lim­ited, the $250 per day visa fee ef­fec­tively acts as a bar­rier to most and in­de­pen­dent travel is still shunned in favour of Government ap­proved tours.

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