By Mary Kay Magistad
Bhutanese are proud of their traditional Buddhist culture — a culture tracing centuries back to Tibet, which has given Bhutan both its written language and its strain of Buddhism. As an independent country, Bhutan has been able to preserve its traditional culture far better than Tibet. And it wants to share that culture — with a select few, well-heeled tourists.
Many climb — though, in sneakers or hiking books rather than in heels — to the Tiger's Nest in Paro, a Buddhist monastery with gilded roofs that seems to hover ethereally above a sheer cliff face. The hike on steep forest trails winds past rhododendrons and ghostly Spanish moss. With the high altitude, it takes even a young, fit person a couple of hours to make the ascent — and that's before you get to the more than 700 stairs leading to the monastery at the end.
A Different Kind of Tourist
But few of the foreign tourists on the trail when I visited — or in Bhutan in general — were young or fit. Many rode donkeys up, and used walking sticks to gradually make their way down. Not exactly the energetic young trekkers of Nepal — but then, Bhutan's tourists are different.
"More than 90 percent of the people who are coming now are over 56," says Kesang Wangdi, director-general of the Tourism Council of Bhutan. "We draw mostly from the older generation."
Wangdi says that's partly because of Bhutan's unique and long-standing system of requiring visitors to spend at least $200 a day — paid in advance, by wire transfer, and covering hotel, meals, guide and transportation. It's Bhutan's way of keeping the impact from tourism low and earnings from it high. Next year, the tariff goes up to $250 a day. Wangdi acknowledges that this might skew the tourist base to an older, more affluent crowd, but he says — part of the allure of tourism in Bhutan is its exclusivity.
"Bhutan can never afford to be a destination for mass tourism," he says. "It's a small country. The environment is fragile. We are very conscious about protecting the environment, our way of life and ensuring that the development of tourism is sustainable. And those tourists who come, they have a holistic experience. You have a complete immersion in a different time, in a different culture. And the experience is authentic. It's not put on for show, and that, we'd like to preserve."
But Bhutan is racing into the modern world, mass tourism or no. The capital, Thimpu, still feels like a big small town, with low-slung buildings, small shops, and an archery field at its center. But construction is everywhere, and the population is growing fast — from about 50,000 people five years ago, to almost double that number now.
Bhutan is also increasingly connected with the outside world. It got its first television and Internet 12 years ago. But in a predominantly young country, with more than half the population under 25, a generation has now grown up, plugged-in. Meanwhile, previously inaccessible mountain villages are fast getting roads, electricity and mobile phones, and sending their young to bigger towns for the kind of education older Bhutanese never had a chance to get.
This presents Bhutan's government with a quandary — how to preserve what is most essential, and most treasured, about Bhutan's traditional culture and values, while still embracing the aspects of modernity that allow Bhutan's economy — now largely dependent on foreign aid — to stand on its own and thrive?
One answer to that question has been to expand hydropower capacity tenfold over 10 years, and sell it to neighboring India. A second answer has been to expand the tourism sector. An initial proposal was to set a target to more than quintuple tourist arrivals over the next two years — from about 40,000 last year to 250,000. When he heard that proposal, opposition party leader Tshering Tobgay pushed back hard.
"Two hundred thousand tourists a year is an unforgivable number, which will destroy the country," Tobgay says. "We have only 700,000 people in Bhutan, and most of the country's still rural. And we can't absorb those numbers without compromising who we are, and our lifestyle."
Some Bhutanese look at what they see as Nepal's pot-smoking, penny-pinching backpackers, and chaotic tourist quarter, and say that's exactly what they don't want. Tobgay is less concerned about that than about sheer numbers.
"For me, it doesn't matter if we have backpackers in Bhutan, as long as the numbers are controlled," he says. "Even with 'high value' tourists, Bhutan cannot absorb 500,000 tourists, even if they each pay $500 a day."
Doubling the Number of Tourists
In the end, the Bhutanese government set a target of merely doubling, rather than quintupling, the number of tourist arrivals over the next couple of year. The goal is also to spread tourist visits more evenly throughout the year, and throughout more of the country, bringing revenue to villages so more villagers have incentive to stay home rather than migrate to cities and towns.
So Bhutan is now looking for a new kind of tourist — not just a silver-haired cultural tourist, coming for a brief one-off visit to see festivals and Buddhist monasteries, but repeat visitors coming for conferences, spa vacations or ecotourism and trekking. They're looking for more tourists like Meredith Campbell of Boulder, Colorado, half of a young backpacking couple I met at Bhutan's crowded international airport.
"Our trip was excellent. Couldn't have been better," she says. But the cost, she says, did weigh in to how long they stayed. "It was definitely a factor. We knew it was going to be one of the more expensive places to travel. And being younger, and maybe not having as much savings, it was a choice to come here."
Campbell is also a model tourist for Bhutan in that, unlike most of the older tourists who come here, she and her partner plan to come back. As she and I chat, her partner sits near the backpacks, balancing a laptop on his legs. Campbell says he's writing an email to their guide, to set up a remote mountain hike next year, on the trail of the Yeti, the abominable snow monster. I remind her that the minimum spending requirement is going up to $250 a day next year.
"We did hear that," Campbell replies with a laugh. "But I don't think it's going to deter us from coming back."