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Tourists at the memorial choeten (file photo)
Tourists at the memorial choeten (file photo)

The Compassionate Society

“…When Bhutan opened to foreign tourists in the 1970s, our leadership resisted the temptations to harness the quick fortunes from mass tourism and instead was prescient to formulate a visionary policy of High Value – Low Volume tourism. The wisdom of our tourism policy has led to the emergence of a strong Brand Bhutan – an exclusive destination.”

– His Majesty The Druk Gyalpo –

I remember, as a young boy, hearing Druk Gyal Zhipa’s words that Bhutan should ‘Modernize, not Westernize’.

Bhutan attracts exclusive visitors because of its strong brand. People pay top dollars to experience our unique spiritual and cultural heritage and draw inspiration from us because we do things uniquely. It will be no more than a few weeks before experts from large travel companies in India team up with local partners to set up fronts that will streamline the process for visitors and stereotype the experience of ‘Brand Bhutan’. In fact, word on the street is that one such ‘center’ is already being set up by a leading tour company.

We have the potential to earn over USD$ 150 million from perhaps 30% less footfall than what we currently have from the region. That is more than double of what is reported, and for a less number of visitors.

In Thimphu, at the Seated Buddha statue there are two or three local tea stalls set up on planks of wood. One of the tea ladies informed me that without visitors from India, her business would not exist as tourists from Europe or America or Japan would not even consider visiting her stall.

Elsewhere in the world, unlicensed local vendors, though common, are deemed illegal and a system of struggle with bribery and corruption has erupted with more businesses sprouting up to meet demand. The trend is reputed to extend to local police and municipalities who act as a mafia to control the numbers by accepting bribe money to allow the otherwise illegal activity to continue.

This leads me to wonder, how long will it be before these basic tea stalls or the lady who sells ‘tshog’ from the back of her van on the way up to Dechenphug, or the girl with her gas stove in Chelela, are forced to attempt to share their profits so that they can be allowed to continue?

In early April, I had some visitors from India who went to visit a popular local monastery in Thimphu. When they saw hordes of other visitors there, they informed my guide that they would prefer not to visit the lhakhang.

Bhutan is visited for its peace, serenity, culture and uniqueness. Beyond that, we have not thought of much else to offer compared to other tourist destinations in the world who have invested much more in their tourism market to deal with larger footfalls.

Who goes to a crowded place to seek peace and serenity? Who visits a particular culture if it is unrecognizable from any other?

When we escort some guests and come across a group of unescorted visitors on the trail to Phajoding or Taktsang, how do we justify that one category of guests needs controlled guidance and the other doesn’t?

Having lived in India, I traveled all over the world with industry colleagues for more than 15 years. The one thing I realized about my Indian friends was, that if something was expensive, they would not mind paying more for it, if it seemed worth it.

As disposable income in Indian household increases, we are in a position to tap into a regional market that is high-end, and able to meet the same standards that we have set for our international visitors. In Bhutan we only have one market. All visitors are offered the same sites and valleys.

Naturally, we cannot go against our culture of equal hospitality towards all and start putting up signs on our restaurants that say ‘rights of admission reserved’. This would give visitors the idea that we do not treat all visitors as equal guests no matter where they are from.

Yes we want friends from India and Bangladesh to come share our peace and serenity, but we need to question if low-end mass tourism is good for us. If we are attracting guests that would have been just as happy vacationing in any hill station with a mountainous backdrop, we have a problem.

Bhutan is experiencing a spillover of national tourism from the region because we are offering their operators competitive prices to lure holidaymakers who would have otherwise spent a few days in the hills of India. And all this is allegedly controlled primarily by over the border nexuses who have fronts in Bhutan that are driving demand to generate their own business.

Chinese operators bought out hotels and restaurants and tour services in Thailand offering ‘zero dollar’ tours through Bangkok. Our Thai friends lost billions in revenue through business fronting. Now they have cracked down with costly added investment and a lingering market remains that will never be totally clean. Can we not learn from that?

One brilliant out-going Chairman of the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO) stated that there is a crucial fifth pillar missing from Gross National Happiness; that of Sovereignty. To keep Good governance relevant, sovereignty is crucial and a well-managed Tourism industry can play a huge role in protecting it. Besides water, tourism is the only other sector that is directly useful in this regard.

It is the failings of our own mentality and purpose when we ignore the visions of our great monarchs and give in to accepting the ‘easy fortunes’ of temporary opportunities. In 5 years, we will have completely lost World visitors in the middle market because we were too busy letting unorganized mass tourism flourish. And in 20 years, we will be no better off than nursing a mass of unfrequented low-end hotels and home stays.

Should control of the hospitality industry continue to be divided?

Should the Tourism Council be given more manpower and autonomy to deal with this huge crisis? Or should tourism policy risk becoming a tool to serve political advantage?

GNH was once simply described as ‘forward development with conscious values’. We may debate over the little things but the end visions of our great monarchs is non-debatable. If GNH and The Wangchuck dynasty are integral to Brand Bhutan, then must not sovereign vision be implemented to keep it so?

We are a compassionate society. But does our compassion extend to National interests or will we remain compassionate to our self-serving nature?

Contributed by Kalden S Dorji

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