A few countries including Bhutan have demonstrated that sustainable travel is a reality. Bhutan is one of the best examples where controlled tourism has been effective in ensuring the sustainability of the industry in the long run. Bhutan has received much international acclaim for its cautious approach to development that places a high priority on conserving the nation’s natural and cultural heritage.
Protecting nature and culture is part of the Bhutanese value system and is an important aspect of the traditional way of life in Bhutan. Bhutan is the only country in the world that does not calculate GDP, but GNH, Gross National Happiness. It contains four main pillars: sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, conservation of environment, preservation and promotion of culture, promotion of good governance.
Cautious approach to tourism
We must not be surprised if the tourism policy reflects these concerns. The government adopted a policy of “high value-low volume” tourism, controlling the type and quantity of tourism right from the start. When Bhutan’s tourism industry began in 1974, few lucky visitors were allowed to enter the country, exactly 2.850 people. Bhutan recorded the highest number of tourist arrivals in 2010: 40,873 high-end tourists visited the country.
Moreover the policy of imposing a high tariff to tour operator willing to take tourists to the country has succeeded in making tourism in Bhutan an exclusive and distinctive experience. It has created opportunities for the development of locally owned and operated private sector enterprises, that offer a variety of adventure and wildlife tours.
Though agriculture is the main economic sector in Bhutan, with 79 percent of the population earning a living through this, tourism is the largest generator of hard currency, and Bhutan’s tourism policy is an essential part of its sustainable economic growth. Above all, Bhutan has considerable natural resources today because of the cautious approach adopted by the government: today it is a good candidate to become an ecotourism destination.
Bhutan has been described as an ecological wonder of the eastern himalayas. Even as the world mourns the loss of its ecology, this small Himalayan Kingdom is emerging as an example to the international community, with more than 72 percent of its land still under forest and a great variety of rare plant and wildlife species. In 2009 the Forestry Conversation Division of the Ministy of Agriculture declared 10 protected areas, now opened for tourists, covering almost 43% of total country’s surface area and biological corridors covering almost 3500 square kilometers.
Wedged between China and India, Bhutan’s terrain ranges from the sub-tropical foothills in the south, through the temperate zones, to dizzying heights of over 7,300 meters (24,000 feet). In Historical records Bhutan was known as Lhojong Menjong ‘the Southern Valley of Medicinal Herbs’. Besides these rare herbs, the Bhutanese seasons are reflected in full colour by wild flowers and plants which carpet the mountainsides. Among them, Rhododendron of numerous shades and the Blue Poppy, the National flower.
Trekking and biking tours in Bhutan are a must for nature – addicted and adventurous people that love to come across traditional festivals, monasteries, palaces and fortresses. Nestled on the face of a sheer cliff face, Taktsang Goemba, also known as “Tiger’s Nest,” is one of the most respected and well-known monasteries.
Are monasteries not enough? The dense forests, also ranging from the sub-tropical to the temperate, are home to numerous rate and endangered species of wildlife like the Blue Sheep, the elusive Snow Leopard, the Himalayan Black Bear, the Golden langur, the Takin, the Tiger. Several northern valleys are home to the Black Necked Crane in winter, one of the world’s most threatened cranes.
Apart from trekking, biking, animal watching, botanical and adventure tours, only meditation tours would give you a deep understanding of Bhutanese culture. If you combine a wildlife tour with the encounter of these ancient religious traditions you will make a real responsible travel. Respect for nature is strongly linked to Buddhism and the animist traditions. Preserving Bhutan’s indigenous belief system is one way of preserving the ecology. Might this spirituality be the secret of the country of the Gross National Happiness?
Michael Foley Photography (main photo)