Bhutan strives for balance as tourism drives its economy

Bhutan strives for balance as tourism drives its economy

THIMPHU, Bhutan - As it ushers in "Visit Bhutan Year" in the hope of boosting tourism, the tiny mountainous country in South Asia faces the challenge of finding a balance between getting its economy back on track and preserving its unique culture and environment.

No doubt, tourism has been a major source of income for this isolated landlocked Buddhist kingdom known for its unique and unspoiled landscape and culture.

And as Bhutan looks forward to getting out of the economic doldrums that resulted from years of uncontrolled growth, tourism is likely to play an important role.

While describing tourism as one of the "jewels" of the Bhutanese economy, Economic Affairs Minister Norbu Wangchuk admitted that striking the right balance between welcoming more tourists and ensuring that its culture, its traditional ways of life and the environment can be preserved has always been a concern.

Since opening up the country to tourism in 1974, Bhutan has adopted a "high value, low impact" tourism policy, which the minister described as a controlled and cautious approach to ensure that the country derives the most benefits from tourism without sacrificing its culture and environment.

"We are mindful about [handling] tourism policy very cautiously so that we are not overwhelmed with massive numbers of tourists that would result in losing the very essence of tourism, which is culture, our Bhutanese values and our environment," he told The Nation in an interview recently.

The minister emphasised that Bhutan followed an environment-friendly, socially and culturally sensitive tourism policy.

"We believe that benefits from tourism must trickle down to people at the grass-root levels. So the emphasis is on engaging the community stakeholders in our tourism sector so that benefits from tourism are enjoyed by people in rural areas," he said.

Visit Bhutan Year will highlight a series of tourism events across the country to commemorate the 60th birthday of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the country's fourth king, who abdicated in 2006 in favour of his son.

It is designed both to promote domestic tourism and to attract international and regional tourists. But at the same time, visitors will also see brand-new shopping areas, young Bhutanese in Western-style dress, and heavy traffic during certain hours - things that were not around a few years back.

Tariff to stay

Bhutanese tourism officials, however, have suggested that its policy of imposing a daily minimum tariff of US$250 (S$334) a day for tourists will remain unchanged, while its visa-issuing process will not be any easier.

Tourists will still be required to enter Bhutan through travel agencies, and individual arrivals are discouraged.

Norbu Wangchuk said these measures were necessary to ensure that "only those who really want to visit Bhutan will make it".

But there is good news for Thais wanting to visit the country. Last year, Bhutan and Thailand signed a friendship programme designed to encourage Thais to visit the Himalayan country.

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