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.