News

Bhutan Welcomes Visitors, Just Not Too Many and Too Poor

To the outside world the small Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan is regarded as a modern-day Shangri-La. Nestled along the eastern side of the Himalayas, wedged between Tibet and India, Bhutan sees few outsiders. And the country likes it that way as it attempts to preserve its fragile culture and ecology. That has prompted Bhutan to strictly regulate tourism. But as VOA's Steve Herman reports from Thimpu, it is possible for anyone with enough money and determination to visit.

Here people call their nation Druk Yul - land of the thunder dragon. The sights and sounds of its deep connection to Tibetan Buddhism are evident just about anywhere a visitor goes.

A religious musician, playing the jaling oboe, dressed in the traditional knee-length gown and huge white cuffs worn by most Bhutanese men is just one example of why this country the size of Switzerland is so appealing to travelers.

The country is permeated with fortresses, known as dzongs, and monasteries. The air is crisp and clean, the views of mountains breathtaking. What Bhutan lacks in high-end tourist infrastructure it makes up in courtesy, safety and cleanliness, especially compared to other major regional destinations.

Yet, Bhutan remains one of international tourism's best-kept secrets. It attracts less than 20,000 tourists a year, not including thousands more Indians, here on business or holiday, who do not need a visa to visit.

The head of the association representing Bhutan's 290 tour operators, Sonam Dorji, says the myth persists that the country is virtually off-limits to visitors. Tourists have been welcomed since 1974. But Dorji says there will be no attempt to undertake a mass-marketing campaign, unlike Bhutan's neighbors against which it competes for tourist revenue.

"By not marketing we still remain exclusive and a very mysterious country," he said. "We don't have any limits of arrivals. As long as they pay $180 per night, they are welcome."

That may sound like a steep price, but it includes accommodations, meals, guides and transportation.

Most visitors come for the trekking, bird watching or just to absorb the unique culture of this deeply religious and agrarian society. Many typical tourist pursuits, however, are off-limits, such as mountain climbing or recreational fishing. Local people consider their mountains sacred and inhabited by deities. Fishing for sport also violates religious sensibilities.

Dorji, head of the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators, says religious values cannot be compromised in the name of increasing tourism.

"Buddhist religion overall is just like to protect even the environment, the sentient beings, all living beings. And we believe that even a tree has a soul. So that's the part which has influenced the tourism policy," added Dorji.

There is a fierce determination here to protect the environment. After all, it is natural resources which provide Bhutan with its primary source of revenue - sales of hydro-electric power to its energy-hungry neighbor, India. Tourism is the top source of hard currency.

Although tourism officials say Bhutan can absorb tens of thousands more visitors per year, if they come during the off-season, there is a fear that making it less costly for outsiders to visit could easily swamp this country of less than 700,000 people.

"Being small, you cannot be careless. We cannot promote and develop normal type of tourism here because we simply do not have the carrying capacity. We have, yes, rich culture, living culture, ancient culture, but they're still very fragile," said former ambassador Lhatu Wangchuk, the director general of Bhutan's department of tourism.

Those who do visit are warmly welcomed. Wangchuk believes that is because experience with well-healed visitors, who tend to be older and highly educated, has had a "very positive" impact on Bhutanese people and their culture.

"It is the tourists who have been educating the Bhutanese. We get tourists who are well traveled, tourists who are very sensitive to other countries' culture, their way of life. And therefore we've been made more aware of the value of our own culture," continued Wangchuk.

But there is a bit of trouble in paradise. There are complaints that the modest number of trekkers are damaging Bhutan's environment, leaving behind litter and eroding habitat in a country where three-quarters of the land is unspoiled forest.

In the few cities, such as the capital of Thimpu, and Paro, where the main airport is located, packs of stray dogs wander the streets barking loudly at night and garbage disposal is an increasing problem.

But most Bhutanese, such as this elderly monk chanting Tibetan prayers on the sidewalk, remain unfazed by the modest number of outsiders and the potential benefits or problems they bring.

As Bhutanese are apt to exclaim, drawing on centuries of Buddhist wisdom, the only thing that is constant is change. They believe that their values and the wisdom of their enlightened leaders in a country now shifting from absolute monarchy to parliamentary democracy will prevail and allow their way of life to be preserved.

 

 

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Interneti
X
Mike O'Sullivan
June 30, 2015 8:20 PM
Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.

VOA Blogs