June 15, 2017 10:00 am JST

Swarming visitors are a boon and a bane for an Asian Shangri-La

Bhutan's astute tourism policies are tested as the world discovers paradise

SUJEEV SHAKYA

A clean river flowing past the Paro Dzong monastery is an example of how Bhutan has taken conservation seriously. (Photo by Sujeev Shakya)

I enjoy my travels to Bhutan. The country's capital, Thimphu, reminds me of my school days in Kalimpong, a town in West Bengal that has since fallen victim to development. But am I also starting to see the same thing in Thimphu? Its streets are now becoming crowded, with many cars bearing Indian license plates as tourists flock to the mountainous kingdom to beat the summer heat.

Bhutan, which opened to tourism in the mid-1990s, last year saw over 209,570 foreign tourists. About 70% came from neighboring countries, mainly India, with which Bhutan shares an open border. A much smaller number came from Bangladesh.

All foreign tourists, except those from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives, are required to spend a minimum of $250 per day during the peak seasons (March-May and September-November) and $200 per day during the rest of the year. Tourists are also encouraged to travel in groups. If they want to travel alone or as a couple, they must pay an additional surcharge.

As someone who lives in Kathmandu, I now anxiously watch whether Bhutan will repeat the same mistakes that eroded Nepal's high-end tourism image. Offering stays at some of the world's most exclusive hotels as part of the minimum daily charge, Bhutan has so far maintained its exclusive cachet. For a country with nearly 800,000 citizens, hosting visitors that amount to a quarter of the population can be an issue. For instance, Nepal, with a population of 27 million, receives around a million tourists a year, equal to about 3.5% of its population.

There are other challenges that Bhutan faces when it comes to tourism, especially the overwhelming number of Indian visitors. While the government is trying to correct this problem by charging a fee for the most popular attractions, I am not sure that alone will be enough.

The country has become a popular destination for several reasons. Bhutan's Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay is achieving global fame for his inspiring TED (technology, entertainment, design) talk in early 2016, which described how Bhutan is becoming a carbon negative country. The talk has drawn more than 1.8 million online views. He has successfully linked the concept of being a carbon negative country to that of another popular Bhutanese idea, the Gross National Happiness index proposed by the country's king in the 1970s, and which has since been adopted by the United Nations as a tool for holistic development.

Bhutan is often seen as a geographically small country, but it is nearly as large as Switzerland, or one-and-a-half times the size of Rwanda. It takes two days to travel across the country, which shares a 700km border with India. The challenge for the country is how to preserve and protect its identity despite its small population. More than 5 million people live just across Bhutan's border in India. Many of these see Bhutan as a land of opportunity in terms of jobs, from menial labor to trade. Improvements in infrastructure linking India with Bhutan have also driven up visitor counts from that country.

VISITOR LIMITS For many countries, Bhutan can show how to use tourism as a means to promote stability while earning revenue. Contrast this approach with that of Nepal, which has destroyed its reputation for high-class tourism with its reckless distribution of mountain-climbing permits as the government chases quantity over quality in terms of tourists. Bhutan quickly recognized that mass tourism can disrupt societies. For example, it banned mountaineering, which has helped keep its environment pristine, something that cannot be said for the Himalayan areas in Nepal and China.

The challenge for Bhutan will be to maintain limits on tourists from India and China who want to visit in droves. The culture and traditions of these countries sometimes clash with those of Bhutan, with their materialistic values and what is seen as loud and rude behavior that often upsets locals. As a result, Bhutan is likely to increase tourism fees to maintain its exclusivity. Whether that will work is another matter. But Rwanda, for example, recently doubled the cost of permits to view the local gorilla population to $1,500, and the move has not dented rising visitor numbers.

Ironically, Bhutan's attractiveness as a Shangri-La will only grow, as mass tourism has a devastating effect on its neighbors. This is the dilemma that Bhutan must confront.

Sujeev Shakya, a Kathmandu-based author and entrepreneur, is chief executive of Beed Management and author of "Unleashing Nepal" (2013).

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