- The secluded Himalayan kingdom has always been fiercely protective of its Buddhist-oriented heritage. Above, the Punakha Dzong, which is the second-oldest dzong in Bhutan.
Until the 1970s, Bhutan had a no-tourist policy. It was feared outside visitors would corrupt the country’s culture and spoil its pristine natural habitat.
The secluded Himalayan kingdom – often described as the last Shangri-La – has always been fiercely protective of its Buddhist-oriented heritage. This explains policies like the country’s dress code, which requires Bhutanese to wear traditional robes, and the late arrival of television, first introduced in 1999, a day after the access to the Internet was also allowed.
Even today, few can say they’ve been to Bhutan, a mountainous country sandwiched between China and India. Tourism is still tightly regulated but this may change as Bhutan sets out to more-than-double the number of tourists it attracts as soon as next year.
Bhutan, which in 2010 counted 40,000 tourists, hopes to draw 100,000 visitors in 2012, says Kesang Wangdi, the head of the country’s tourism council. The numbers pale in comparison to the over five million people that visit India every year. But it’s a lot for Bhutan, which has a population of 700,000. So far Bhutan seems to be on the right track: between January and April, the number of tourists increased 62% from a year earlier.
But the country’s tourism council is very picky about what kind of tourists it targets. Bhutan is wary of going down the Nepal route, where budget travelers and backpackers swarm hostels and trekking trails. Instead, they want to make Bhutan a boutique destination, through a policy Mr. Wangdi sums up as “high value, low impact.”
To do this, foreign visitors are requested to spend a minimum of $200 per day in the country, an amount that will go up to $250 starting in 2012. This is likely to keep the Lonely Planet-wielding, “on a shoestring” travelers out of the way.
There is a big exception: Tourists from India and other countries members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation are not levied this fee.
Mr. Wangdi thinks that $250 is not too much to spend for a day in Bhutan – even for tourists who want to go on a trekking holiday. “We feel that the price is right,” he said, explaining that this amount covers food, lodging, guides and private transportation. “You can basically leave your wallet behind.”
You’ll need your wallet to buy souvenirs, which in Bhutan – a country that cultivates its arts and crafts traditions – are abundant and generally plastic-free. They include carved masks, typically worn by Buddhist monks during religious rituals, and wooden phalli, Bhutan’s omnipresent symbols of fertility.
To draw more tourists to its hills and valleys, the mountain kingdom is boosting its infrastructure and upping the ante on its marketing strategies, says Mr. Wangdi.
Three new domestic airstrips are set to open within a year, two of which are close to completion. The country’s national carrier – Drukair – is set to operate on these routes, as will Tashi Air Service, a new airline set up by the Tashi Group, a Bhutanese business conglomerate. Tashi Air plans to have its first domestic flight by the end of the year, according to a Tashi official.
Bhutan hopes that tourism will spur economic growth in a way that is compatible with the country’s philosophy of Gross National Happiness. First conceptualized as a pun on gross domestic product, GNH has since been enshrined in the country’s constitution, guiding policymaking in areas ranging from the environment to psychological wellbeing.
“The main target is how much employment we can generate and how we can contribute to GDP in a way that is equitable,” says Mr. Wangdi. He estimates that the $90-million industry currently employs around 22,000 people.
Getting UNESCO to accord world heritage status to the country’s dzongs – centuries-old forts that house Buddhist monasteries and administrative offices – could help raise the country’s profile. But Mr. Wangdi says there are “pros and cons” to this. Making heritage sites more visitor-friendly may require more stringent safety measures that may interfere with the routine activities that take place there, he says.
Mr. Wangdi said he didn’t expect a spike in tourism for the king’s wedding, which is set to take place in October, a month that typically attracts a high number of tourists anyways.
But what about royal couple merchandise? Are visitors likely to see Kate and Will-style mugs and magnets for sale on Thimphu’s roadside stalls? Mr. Wangdi thinks it’s unlikely. “We are not planning anything ostentatious.” But he didn’t rule out the most enterprising of Bhutanese may have a go at it.