Bhutan hopes that tourism will play a larger role in the kingdom's development and in alleviating poverty. But expanding tourism also poses challenges for the small country.
A light dusting of snow has left Paro Valley resplendent as clouds swirl and drift in the morning sunlight.
The air is clear and fresh as mountains soar beyond in splendor. This is the beauty of Bhutan - a kingdom braced between India and China - that has lured travelers over decades.
Bhutan’s unique path in the tourism industry is tied to a dedicated policy of "high value, low volume tourism" with a daily all-encompassing tariff of $250 (around 180 euros) for each traveler aimed at restraining visitor numbers to the Kingdom.
Tshering Tobgay, a Paro resort owner, says tourism development in a country with a population of 700,000 needs to be carefully managed.
"When you look at the other countries, for example India and Nepal, when you have a lot of tourists, it spoils the culture and the heritage," Tobgay said.
Aiming to increase tourist arrivals
Visitor arrivals to Bhutan stand at 60,000 a year, well up from the 370 visitors in 1974 when the Kingdom began to open up to the wider world. The government plans to boost this number to 100,000 by 2013.
Tourism industry experts say managing growth will be a challenge.
Tourism plays a key role in Bhutan’s development. Foreign exchange earnings from tourism ranks second to hydro-electrical power sold to India. Tourism revenue also contributes to Bhutan’s education and health programs.
The tourism policy is also tied to Bhutan’s development paradigm of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) - Bhutan’s strategy of promoting development while ensuring the protection of the environment, culture and the local communities.
Isabel Sebastien, a Bhutan tourism consultant, says an increase in the number of travelers also raises concerns. But, Sebastien says, the government appears committed to a steady growth strategy thanks to the GNH paradigm.
"The policy makers, and particularly the prime minister, are very committed to making Gross National Happiness (GNH) the driving philosophy in Bhutan’s development," she told Deutsche Welle. "I have great confidence that things will go differently in Bhutan than anywhere else. There is the potential that it won’t fall apart like Nepal or destinations in Thailand."
Bhutan’s tourism at ‘cross roads’
But director of plans and programs with Bhutan’s Tourism Council, Thuji Dorji Nadik, fears Bhutan’s tourism industry may be at a "cross roads" requiring effective regulation.
"It is important for us to set the ground rules and then implement them seriously. So far we have been pretty laid back," Nadik said, "Since the number of tourists are going up, I think we need to be more serious on the legislation, regulation and implementation."
Pressure to expand tourism is focused on more foreign exchange for development.
"Tourism is getting a lot of attention which is necessary, but we also have to be careful that too much expectation is not built up in tourism, that it will solve all the (social) issues," Nadik said.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Bhutan has adopted the GNH principles into its plans for Bhutan reaching its 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Dorji Choden, UNDP head of poverty in Bhutan, says tourism can also play a key role in mitigating income differences. "Tourism would definitely fit into this picture (to reduce poverty) as tourism is a big source of revenue," Choden told Deutsche Welle.
One strategy is to decentralize tourism development away from areas such as Paro and the capital Thimphu.
Bhutanrecently launched domestic air services to eastern Bhutan with community-based tourism aimed at boosting regional incomes, food produced locally for hotels and travelers, as well as sale of locally-made products.
But pollution is already a concern, says Bhutan’s Economics Minister Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk.
"Many tourists told us that if we don’t take care of the trash on the trekking routes, or the waste in the cities, they don’t want to spend 250 dollars to see this rubbish," Wangchuk said.
Above Paro Valley, Buddhist prayer flags flutter violently, their messages borne by the wind. Tour guide Phuntsho Gyeltshen says preservation of the culture and environment is crucial to ensure visitors continue to be lured to Bhutan.
Author: Ron Corben
Editor: Sarah Berning