Can Traditional Bhutan Survive Tourism?

Travelers have started to take notice of Bhutan, great news for the nation that's banking on tourism for economic grow. Now the hard part: preserving its cultural treasures.

Paula Bronstein/Getty

Bhutan is commonly described as “heaven on earth.”

Heaven, though, has been getting a lot of visitors recently.

In 2013, Bhutan had nearly 120,000 visitors—the highest in its history, according to the Bhutan Tourism Council. Americans made up the largest foreign market with about 7,000 visitors, despite the daily $250 tariff (which includes basic food, accommodations, transport, and a guide). Visitors from India, Bhutan’s neighbor, however, still dominate in terms of annual visitors, largely because they’re excused from the tariff.

As a landlocked country with a mountainous terrain and a largely agricultural population, Bhutan is turning to tourism for revenue. And rightly so: its historic Buddhist monasteries nestled atop cliffs at high altitude, with majestic views of the Himalayas in the distance, make for the ideal photo op.

The Himalayan kingdom started welcoming visitors nearly 40 years ago. But, it’s really in the last decade that Bhutan has seen an influx of tourists, especially those from beyond Asia. The country prizes its natural beauty: in fact, Bhutan’s constitution carries a clause stating that 60 percent of its land will always be kept as forest.

That’s been Bhutan’s selling point: its quiet, spiritual, and earthy nature make it a good place to disconnect from the frantic ways of modern life. As tourists pour in from around the world, the newly-formed democracy is trying to balance growth and modernization with heritage. The question is: can it be done in a mindful way?

Sitting outside the Druk Hotel in Thimphu, one of the oldest hotels in the country, it appears as if modernization has already arrived. Three young Bhutanese men are preparing for a street fair with a live concert. U2 and Coldplay ballads blast into the town square as the men test the audio system. An elderly gentleman, sitting on the steps, facing the sound stage isn’t entertained. He says he just wanted to rest quietly before resuming his walk up to the stupa, a Buddhist shrine dedicated to the 3rd King of Bhutan. Disgruntled, he gets up and walks away.

Nearby, a hole-in-the-wall barber is snipping away. He’s from the Indian state of Bihar and is styling a young Bhutanese mane into the latest hair craze: a sort-of disheveled, layered look for men, globalized by South Korean pop stars. The world has clearly reached Bhutan, and the young members, at least, are enjoying it, often to the chagrin of the older generation.

The rise in tourism has also meant more jobs for the younger generations. Over 2,000 people graduate from university each year in Bhutan, and they yearn for professional work. The government is hoping tourism can keep them from migrating to nearby India or Thailand. There are over 1,000 travel operators in the country, and the industry employs nearly 30,000 people. Plus, its easy for entrepreneurs to start their own businesses—all you need is a computer and an Internet connection.

Tashi Tshering, a young Bhutanese man, operates a travel agency for filmmakers and documentarians. He doesn’t see tourism as a challenge to tradition. Rather, he says, “the promotion done by high end resorts have benefitted us a lot. More people are aware of us.”

Bhutan is home to some of the world’s most luxurious hotels, often garnering recognition on international best hotel lists, and Aman Resorts is one of these, offering uber-luxurious hotels in remote locations. The resort chain has five properties in the small country and was the first foreign hotel operator allowed to build in Bhutan starting in 2004.

John Reed, the managing director for Aman’s hotels in Bhutan, moved to the Himalayan kingdom over a decade ago when Aman opened its first location in Paro. Prior to Bhutan, Reed was stationed in Bali and Myanmar. He recognizes that working in these countries, which have ancient heritage sites and pristine natural beauty, comes with cultural and environmental responsibilities.

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Reed is originally from New Orleans and has been a long-time world traveller. But, his stay in Bhutan has exceeded a decade now, making him more of a local than a foreigner. He says that while Aman resorts creates a feel of “rustic luxury” (room rates are upwards of $1,000 a night) at their properties in Bhutan, they are vested in supporting the local economy.

“We get our vegetables from local farmers. We buy Bhutanese handicraft pieces. We hire locals. We dress them in local attire, not uniforms,” he says. “We want the local economy to benefit.”

Their work extends to charitable giving as well. “We help whitewash monasteries, rebuild structures, and teach English and math in classrooms,” Reed says.

Reed moved to Bhutan when Thimphu was a quaint town of 30,000. Today, the capital has nearly 100,000 people. “Sure, it pains you to see rampant growth. But none of us can stop development,” Reed says.

Debbie Papyn, an acclaimed travel blogger from Belgium, recently visited Bhutan and stayed at one of the Aman Resorts. She writes, on her site, ClassTouriste: “In Punakha, it’s [the Aman resort] an old summer palace that is hosting eight guests who will experience Bhutan at its best.”

Mukesh Gupta, who operates the oldest travel agency for Bhutan, Bhutan Travels, disagrees. Raised in Darjeeling, India, Gupta attended St. Joseph’s School with a large community of Bhutanese children who were studying abroad. Gupta built friendships with these Bhutanese families and was asked to work with the Bhutanese government on crafting their tourism strategy in the early 90s as he developing his own travel company in Darjeeling.

Gupta has not been impressed by Aman Resorts, characterizing their properties as over-priced getaways for people who just want to stay at another Aman resort, not immerse themselves in local Bhutanese life. “If you want to go luxury, there’s Taj Tashi or even, Uma,” he says, directing luxury traffic to Bhutan’s other expensive hotspots.

But the best luxury hotel, he says, is a completely Bhutanese venture: Zhiwa Ling in Paro. “It’s high standards but with Bhutanese soul,” he says. The owner rescued pieces from deserted monasteries to decorate the hotel. Much like rural Bhutanese homes, which house a decorated temple inside, the hotel has a temple on the second floor with rescued wood from the 400-year-old Gangtey Monastery. That’s the locally-driven model Gupta hopes the government will advocate.

While Bhutan’s tourism numbers are on the rise, peaking last year with gross revenues from tourism exceeding $63 million, the highest to date, the country still struggles during the low season. Tshering is in favor of growth, he says, but a “gradual one and spread throughout the year.” Most visitors go in the spring (April, May) or the fall (September, October). Adventure sports and mountaineering could lure in travelers during the off season, but they are still limited. Bhutan’s tallest mountain has not been climbed yet, thanks to environmental concerns and the locals’ immense respect for mountains.

Despite the rapid growth, Bhutan is still trying to keep its traditions alive and preserve the heavens for generations to come.

Editor's Note: This piece has been updated to reflect that there are currently 1,000 travel operators working in Bhutan.