Tourism Marks Golden Jubilee

PEMA TSHOMO
Thimphu

Bhutan ushered in a momentous celebration on June 2nd, commemorating 50 years since it first welcomed tourists in 1974. This golden jubilee marks a remarkable journey for the country, which has established itself as a global leader in sustainable travel.

A special ceremony held at Buddha Point, Kuenselphodrang, in Thimphu, marked the festival’s official launch. The ceremony brought together dignitaries, tourism representatives, locals, and media to honor this half-century of welcoming visitors to experience Bhutan’s captivating culture, breathtaking nature, and beauty.

The ceremony itself embodied the essence of Bhutan’s approach to tourism. Traditional rituals led by monks, the lighting of 50 butter lamps for peace and prosperity, and a respectful yet celebratory atmosphere reflected the country’s deep spiritual roots. The event wasn’t just about looking back but also about expressing optimism for the future of Bhutan’s unique brand of travel experiences.

The Golden Jubilee campaign, spearheaded by the Department of Tourism (DoT) in collaboration with stakeholders and the private sector, promises a series of engaging activities throughout the year, culminating on December 17th, 2024, coinciding with National Day.

The country’s tourism journey began five decades ago, with the Coronation of His Majesty the Fourth King. From the very beginning, the country embraced a policy of “high value, low volume” tourism, a philosophy that has placed sustainability at the forefront of its development strategy long before it became a global buzzword.

This approach aims to generate revenue from tourism while safeguarding the country’s rich cultural heritage. It was a delicate balance, ensuring mindful development of the sector without comprising the very essence of what makes Bhutan special.

As per a press release from DoT, the first group of tourists to embark on this adventure in 1974 was a pax of 14. There were eight Americans, five Spaniards, and a lone Argentinian. Their journey was an undertaking in itself, a challenging trek by road at a time when air travel to Bhutan was non-existent.

But these visitors were drawn by the allure of a hidden Himalayan kingdom, and their experience paved the way for hundreds more to follow in the years to come.

A turning point came in 1983 with the launch of Bhutan’s national airliner, Drukair. This newfound accessibility significantly boosted tourism, making the Land of the Thunder Dragon a more realistic travel option for a wider range of visitors.  Over the years, Bhutan has seen a steady increase in tourist arrivals, with a peak in 2019 at around 320,000 guests.

One of the cornerstones of Bhutan’s tourism strategy is the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF), a unique concept implemented by the kingdom. Currently charged at USD 100 per adult per night, the SDF goes beyond simply generating revenue.

These funds are directed towards various initiatives critical to Bhutan’s well-being. Preserving the country’s pristine environment and maintaining its cultural heritage are top priorities.

The SDF also supports free healthcare and education for all Bhutanese citizens, while funding sustainable development projects that benefit local communities.

“We are immensely proud to celebrate 50 years of tourism in Bhutan,” said Tshering Tobgay, the Prime Minister. “This milestone is a celebration of what has been achieved since we opened our doors to the world, establishing ourselves as a unique, transformative, and sustainable destination.

“As we honor the past five decades, we also look forward to a future where sustainable tourism continues to enrich our nation and connect us with the world.”

DoT has crafted a diverse program of events to mark this golden jubilee. The kickoff ceremony served as a symbolic launch, seeking blessings for a successful and meaningful celebration. Looking ahead, visitors and Bhutanese alike can expect a range of engaging activities throughout the year.

A highlight will be a TedX Talk featuring Bhutanese speakers who will delve into the history of tourism in the kingdom, exploring themes of sustainability and future projects. For those with an appreciation for Bhutan’s rich artistic heritage, a special jewelry collection and fashion show will showcase the evolution of Bhutanese craftsmanship and design over the past five decades.

Bhutan’s global presence will also be felt through special events hosted at Bhutanese embassies worldwide. These gatherings will invite media and travel trade representatives to learn more about Bhutan’s past and future vision for tourism.

Closer to home, the “Dzongkhag Visits” program will focus on individual districts within Bhutan. This initiative aims to empower these regions to tell their own unique stories related to tourism over the past 50 years.

Preserving these diverse experiences is another key aspect of the jubilee celebrations. A dedicated team will be working to create a comprehensive archive of Bhutan’s tourism journey.

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