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The highlanders

It is often said that the best way to preserve culture and tradition is to share it with others. For Bhutan and her people, its culture and tradition is the way of life.

Against the growing influence of globalisation that has not spared Bhutan, the age-old culture and tradition affirms our identity. This manifested in Laya last week when it hosted the two-day highland festival. In showcasing and celebrating yak based livelihoods and the pristine environment that Bhutan takes pride in, the festival also highlighted the challenges and opportunities of the highlands.

For most, Laya still needs to be reached on foot but it is already connected with smart phones and social media. It could soon be connected with road, which would as it has in other places, make the horses redundant. The iconic conical hat that girls and women wear is becoming an occasional wear, saved for festivities, just as their traditional attire. Waste management is already becoming a problem. Families are becoming nuclear and the cordycep business has resulted in increasing the number of households.

These are changes that we must come to terms with even as we gauge its impacts and work on addressing these challenges.

But for two days, when the highland communities showcase their life, with their adorned yaks and horses and dogs, the mountains come alive.  The festival is one of those occasions where visitors come to learn and experience, not to teach and advise. In showcasing their way of life, we learn the values of culture preservation.

The festival is as much a reminder to our tour operators on tapping the potential of the highlands as a tourism destination. Their efforts must go beyond displaying photographs of the highland communities on tourism brochures and websites. The highland communities are critical in securing the country’s socio-economic security. In a way, the livelihood of those in the lowlands depends on their livelihood in the mountains.

Securing their livelihood should be a priority. While the festival does create new economic opportunities through home-stay facilities, there are reports of some families not getting a chance to offer these services. Spreading the benefits of tourism to the community becomes crucial in engaging the highlanders to preserve their culture.

Often, we tend to take our culture for granted just as we do the nomadic communities. Even as efforts are made to mainstream them, the highland communities are undergoing a transformation.

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