PHOTO: There will be plenty of festivals during Visit Bhutan Year 2015. (Courtesy of Tourism Council of Bhutan)
Today (Nov. 11) is the 60th birthday of Bhutan’s King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the man who first conceived of the idea of measuring the success of governance with a “Gross National Happiness” standard. The king’s birthday helped inspire the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) to declare next year “Visit Bhutan 2015.”
This king offers plenty to celebrate allowing for a peaceful transference to a constitutional monarchy in 2008 and presiding over the creation of the world’s only constitution that includes environmental protection in its DNA, establishing that at least 60 percent of Bhutan be covered in forest.
The year will see a bounty of festivals, events and activities throughout the destination to commemorate the year. Among the special events will be the hosting of the Pacific Asia Travel Association’s upcoming Adventure Travel and Responsible Tourism Conference and Mart 2015 (Feb. 4 to 6). The conference’s “Explore Beyond Tourism – Celebrate Happiness” theme is a not so subtle tip of the hat to the “Gross National Happiness” policy.
Held in Thimphu, the Bhutanese capital, the event is a three-day event bringing together adventure tourism professionals to address issues facing the adventure travel as well as responsible and sustainable tourism. Bhutan, which last hosted the show in 2012, is an ideal location to discuss all of these issues.
Bhutan, maybe the only country in the world that limits the number of tourists it lets in, imposes a $250 daily minimum on expenditures for each visiting tourist. Visitors must enter the country on licensed tour packages. Returning visitors mostly report that it’s easy to spend the required $250 per diem as the hotels eat up most of it.
Currently, the kingdom receives around 100,000 annual visitors, some 60 percent of them from India. Nepal, by contrast received 800,000 in 2013. The Bhutanese are struggling to find a balance between tourism income to help eradicate the country’s chronic unemployment problems without changing the country’s very traditional way of life.
A report from the UNWTO on Adventure Tourism, published jointly with the Adventure Travel Trade Association, cites the close relation between adventure tourism and responsible tourism. For that reason the UNWTO sees adventure tourism as a progressive form of tourism. “With careful and responsible management, adventure tourism offers effective development opportunities to countries looking for new and sustainable sources of growth,” said UNWTO Secretary-General Taleb Rifai.
Best Western International is building its first Bhutanese hotel in Thimphu. The 41-room hotel is scheduled to open in mid-2015. Best Western has been on an expansion drive in Asia. This hotel follows recent openings in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. “Bhutan really is a paradise on Earth.
Home to breathtaking mountains and glaciers, ancient monasteries, and an incredible variety of rare wildlife, this spiritual country offers an endless array of allures and attractions for lovers of nature and Himalayan culture,” said Glenn de Souza, Best Western International’s vice president of international operations Asia & Middle East.
Buddhist monasteries overlooking spectacular Himalayan chasms is the first thought that comes to mind when most people think of Bhutan, but it’s also a wonderland for adventure tourists looking to trek, go birding, climb or ride swift Himalayan rivers.
Shopping for handcrafts and objets d‘art is another preoccupation of visitors. The highlight of Bhutanese textiles is the intricately patterned Kishuthara silks, a product of the village of Khoma. From Khoma, visitors can make a two-hour trek to the village from Lhuntse Dzong, a walk famous for its scenery and the scent of its pine forests.
The Tiger's Nest, Taktsang Monastery is Bhutan’s most famous site. Overlooking the Paro Valley from its cliff top roost Paro Valley, many Buddhists believe it was the landing spot for the Indian saint Padmasambhava and his flying tiger.
The lifestyle that Bhutan is earnestly trying to preserve is one where pastoral and agricultural traditions still thrive. The country boasts that it has not a single traffic light and that up to 70 percent of the country is still covered by forest. Department stores, highways and fast food are regarded by the government as vehicles of commercialism and decadence that would bring the country from its high protected Himalayan roost to a place that would have it sucked into modernity with all of its woes.
Those values are in everything they promote.
“Bhutan continues to endeavor to provide a unique experience as it confronts change by nurturing social, political and economic transformation guided by the philosophy of Gross National Happiness,” said Chhimmy Pem, the director of the Tourism Council of Bhutan. “At a time when the world is facing numerous crises, this small kingdom hopes to inspire large global powers with a different approach to development and change.”
Tourists were first admitted into Bhutan in 1974, and the number of arrivals remained under 2,000 per year for decades. By 2005 the country was still at 13,643 tourists, which represented a 48 percent growth over 2004. Bhutan is targeting between 15,000 and 17,000 tourist arrivals for 2006. The numbers began to grow exponentially in 2006 and by 2011 it was up to 40,000. Now there’s a growing industry sector that includes the state-owned Druk Air and the private newcomer, Bhutan Airlines.