Bhutan has entered a new chapter of history, an era drawn from the wisdom that cultivated the Bhutanese system over the centuries. As the COVID-19 catastrophe battered societies and derailed economies around the world, His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck assumed the role of a protector of the nation. Soon after January, 2020, when the news of the Coronavirus broke worldwide, His Majesty laid out the mandate of the State to protect Bhutan and Bhutanese society even as millions of people succumbed to Covid-19 around the world:
“The interventions by the State should be swift, effective, comprehensive, and inclusive. The measures must be immediate and substantial.”
Instead of being cowed down by a debilitating pandemic, His Majesty The King shifted the country into new gear. His Majesty reminded Bhutanese leaders that nation building is a dynamic process and the reality of a changing world means new challenges and opportunities. Bhutan is moving into new times with fresh perspectives and ideas to emerge better and stronger from the pandemic.
A State comprises the country and people. Nation building, therefore, means the reformation of government and reformation of society, a phenomenon that we see unfolding by the day. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our vulnerabilities, shaken Bhutan from a stupor, and provided our generation with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-shape a country that is strong, resilient, and future-ready. As Bhutanese society emerges from the worst of this pandemic, there is a new vision being translated into national policy, legislation, and action.
It is a demanding vision. But the basis for hope and optimism is a trusted leadership that is illustrating clarity by the day. Over the past one and a half decades the sense of urgency of the Royal guidance has grown. In 2020, His Majesty granted Royal Kashos for the fundamental rethinking and restructuring of the Bhutanese education system and the civil service. Last year, His Majesty made it crystal clear that complacency and misplaced compassion should not be tolerated in public service.
The landscape of governance is being transformed, starting with a much-needed and far-sighted reform of the civil service. The government is being restructured, the plans and programmes reprioritised. Public service organisations and institutions are being reorganised. The administration system is being refined for a population that is more educated, skilled, and globalised than in the past.
With the emphasis that a higher level of prosperity is vital for the security and well-being of a nation and people, economic development is being overhauled with the ambitious goal of becoming a high-income country. The focus is on sustainable and equitable economy to ensure the overall health of the nation.
The new economic vision expands national policies to reach sparse communities over rugged terrain. Bhutan is an agrarian nation and agriculture in the 21stcentury must be characterised by technology and information management, in policies and action.Decentralised governance will be a major contributing factor to rural development, focused on higher productivity for self-reliance.
Bhutan’s pristine natural resources must be conserved to maintain intergenerational equity. It has become imperative that the hydropower and tourism and mining sectors are revamped to ensure a good quality of life for all the people as part of the vision to establish a progressive and prosperous country. In the energy sector, Bhutan’s commitment to clean energy is being stepped up and hydropower supplemented by solar power and bio energies. The decline in high–end tourism to mass tourism is being reversed to rescue an industry heading in the wrong direction. The mines and minerals policy aims at benefiting the nation rather than a few people.
Pragmatic wisdom for the 21st century places Bhutan in the geo strategic context of the region and the world – for example, the fourth industrial revolution. The wisdom of GNH requires that Bhutan learns from a world that uses technological prowess for better governance, to monitor the environment, promote sustainable development, and stimulate the economy.
In implementing policies, government ministries and institutions, parliamentary bodies, and public agencies with their specific mandates, have been repeatedly advised by the Throne to work together, not in competition or in isolation.
Bhutanese have survived as a populace, and Bhutan as a nation, because of the distinct identity of the people. The threat perception of 700,000 landlocked people in a region which is home to two-fifths of mankind has required that Bhutan find its strength in a unique identity grounded in the country’s history, tradition, culture, and value system. Today, Bhutanese are forced to contemplate the situation and ask some important questions. Have the phenomenal achievements of our forefathers lulled the transitional generation into a sense of false comfort and malaise?
The country’s strength being the people, it is a Royal aspiration that Bhutan must not tolerate mediocrity. The Royal vision conveys, loud and clear, that Bhutanese society needs a new mindset and work culture, from ingrained complacency and indifference to action-oriented work ethics. How can Bhutan build and nurture the people to implement the plans and fulfill our goals? How do we empower and equip a generation in transition, youth coming out of schools and colleges with skills and opportunities for productive careers and lives?
“It is no longer enough to say ‘I am the best in Bhutan’. I expect you to be the best wherever you go in the world.”
The education system is seeing a fundamental rethinking and reform, as a vision and as a system. The past measure of progress in education by increasing school enrolment is being replaced by an emphasis on quality and skills that will nurture Bhutanese youth to be the best among the best anywhere in the world. The De-Suung Skilling Programme was initiated by His Majesty The King to train youth.
A historic Royal initiative will be the Gyalsung – National Service. The vision is to prepare all Bhutanese youth for the future. One of the foremost objectives of Gyalsung is to forge a shared national identity that transcends social, economic, regional, ethnic and linguistic differences. Bhutanese youth should know their history and culture and understand national circumstances and concerns, goals and objectives. As youth from all 20 dzongkhags and 205 gewogs go through this rite of passage together, their shared experience will help build inextricable bonds of friendship. Gyalsung aims to help youth identify their own life-goals, enhance their capability and skills, foster their self-confidence and autonomy, and strengthen their emotional positivity and psychological maturity so that they not only realise their own aspirations, but also serve the Tsawa-sum as capable citizens.
A Just and Harmonious Society
The Royal vision is that the present generation of Bhutanese, with a unity of aspirations and values as human beings, focused on science and technology as well as the lessons of history, will rethink and redefine the true purpose of growth. This would require a fundamental change of thought, a social revolution that will change the way to pursue growth that is truly sustainable.
The image of a future Bhutan is that within the sovereign, peaceful, and prosperous nation will exist a “just and harmonious society”. Such a vision is as pragmatic as it is wise as it is lofty, with universal appeal and relevance. GNH as a development goal, and Bhutan’s historic transition to democracy, are both vital elements of a just and harmonious society.
The concept of a just and harmonious society does not come from a specific body of political thought or social theory but is what every human society pursues. It is a vision shared by intellectual giants of the past and prophets of the future. For Bhutan, it implies a transformation of a deeply traditional populace into a contemporary society which is a balance of cutting-edge technology and a progressive work culture with a value system that is deeply humane.
The vision calls for difficult decisions made with clarity and courage to build the Bhutanese legacy for all time. The goal is not just to increase per capita income, but to distribute the improvement of the country’s economy more justly, more satisfactorily, among the population so that the resources of society should be distributed to all, those most deserving first.
COVID 19 has reminded us that the world will always remain vulnerable to unforeseen events that we have no control over – pandemics, natural calamities, economic downturns, and political volatility that affect all countries and far-flung communities. Bhutan needs to be bold, creative, and farsighted as it relaxes pandemic protocols today, albeit with the caution that has enabled the country to survive and thrive as a unique nation.
Keeping Tourism on Track
Today, every industry needs to change because Bhutan is changing… the world is changing. How we emerge from this pandemic, the bold decisions Bhutan takes and the sacrifices we make today, will redefine what it means to be Bhutanese. We owe this to the future generation.
For the tourism industry, as for all industries, Bhutan symbolises a brand of the highest quality. The mandate of this generation of Bhutanese is to live up to what Bhutan represents as a regenerative approach to the heart of a unique destination. And for tourism, the proposed policy is not a new concept because, early in Bhutan’s development, the industry was established with the vision of being a high value, low volume destination. It is now time to think deeper about travel that enriches, rather than dilutes, the quality of life of the Bhutanese people.
High value, low volume tourism policy was crafted to preserve Bhutan’s socio-cultural identity and environmental sustainability even as we leverage economic gains. The vision of a just and harmonious society requires that Bhutan’s approach to growth must be inclusive and equitable. It is a reminder that tourism, in the past, has made a few people wealthy and neglected the wider population. The question now is how will this exciting and complex industry, which represents 10 percent of the global GDP, benefit the people of Bhutan, especially the future generations?
The unsettling and transformative times brought on by human conflict, climate change, and other factors including the COVID pandemic, are forcing countries across the world to rethink and revise economic initiatives, starting with travel procedures. Global tourism organisations like World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) now acknowledge the need for a new direction to “build back better”.
Bhutan too must think honestly, boldly, and creatively to ensure the sustainability of an exciting and potentially disruptive industry in a small, landlocked country with a large youth population. The most notable and perturbing trend in Bhutan’s tourism is the descent of a high-end aspiration into the lowest common denominator in the form of mass tourism. This mirrors a world grappling with unsustainable travel and over-tourism that has sidelined local communities, damaged local environments, and overtaken local cultures. Where did we go wrong? How did we aim high end but accomplish low end?
The first step is to understand and acknowledge the neglect in the governance of the tourism industry. The Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) was established with a vision that was appreciated, even admired, by the global tourism industry. TCB was steered by prime ministers and senior ministers, advised by highly paid and experienced consultants, and the secretariat headed by veteran bureaucrats. So why such an enormous blindspot?
The mandate was stretched across numerous organisations which were not coordinated: Cabinet, ministries, Tourism Council of Bhutan, thromdes (municipality), Road Safety and Transport Authority, banks, tour operators, hoteliers, dzongkhags, transporters. The lack of clear direction and limited professionalism was exacerbated by economic turbulence like a Rupee crisis. At the same time, there was pressure from the industry, politicians, and external interest groups. And Bhutanese tour operators and hotels collaborated with foreign agents to bring in more tourists who pay less.
In a decade and a half there was an upsurge of service providers, explosion of cheap hotels, Air BnBs and home stays, all enabled by policy, tax waivers, easy loans, and lax regulation. Monasteries became crowded, footpaths and scenic viewpoints congested, roads and trails to spiritual sites were disrupted by loud music and unruly behaviour. Corruption began, with agents undercutting prices, operators avoiding rules and evading taxes, Bhutanese fronting for foreign agents and hotels.
Bhutan is the only carbon negative country, with more than 70 percent of forest cover and new species of flora and fauna being discovered regularly. Yet, the country is losing the battle against glacial recession, growing carbon footprint, pollution of water sources and poor waste management. Bhutan’s tourism industry had privatised profits and socialised losses.
Bhutan as a “global hotspot” tourist destination became a broken promise. High value visitors started to abandon Bhutan. A resounding message came from an agent who had brought tourists to Bhutan for many years: “Goodbye,” he said, after a visit to Taktshang in May, 2019. “Bhutan is no more a high-end destination”.
The implication of mass tourism is about much more than just tourist numbers. It is the impact that affects the quality of lives. Bhutanese life and culture have been disrupted. Grocery stores in towns are being replaced by handicraft shops and cafes. The path to Chime Lhakhang is crowded with shops selling more gimmicks than handicrafts. The spiritual journey to Taktshang has given way to rushing ponies, blaring music, and cheap artefacts from India and Nepal. At monasteries, tourists jostle with pilgrims trying to make their offerings and prostrations. Peaceful Dochula is jammed with an uncontrolled flow of vehicles and tourists. The Bhutanese populace is starting to resent this.
A glaring dilemma is that the industry deteriorated even as Bhutan knows exactly what needs to be done. To return to high end tourism we must define the roles of key tourism stakeholders, streamline government taxes, and outline pricing mechanisms to avoid over-tourism. Domestic and foreign vehicle traffic has to be regulated and streamlined.
Seasonal and geographical spread of tourism, long discussed but never implemented, should target performance-based incentives and investment. Long existing ideas include at least one alternate international airport and updated technology to prevent revenue leakage and misuse of payment systems as well as transparent and convenient transactions. This is all underlined with improved services and facilities.
Domestic tourism is an emerging and welcome trend. Increased spending power gives Bhutanese people the opportunity to travel, particularly on pilgrimage. Royal initiatives like the highland festivals and the Trans Bhutan Trail promise healthy, enjoyable, and educative journeys into Bhutanese culture, history, and nature. Home stays are available in most dzongkhags, a modern expression of the traditional system of “seeking hospitality”.
Bhutan needs sensitive and intelligent stewardship to manage tourism. The responsibility has fallen on today’s leadership to return to the concept that less is more – quality rather than quantity. Officials have the mandate to do what is best for the community. The challenge is to resist the temptations to harness quick fortunes from mass tourism. Bhutan must not be pressured into wrong decisions. The priority is not marketing Bhutan but managing the quality of the travel experience for both visitors and hosts.
It is the government that decides policy and makes decisions, not the industry. The industry must not be hijacked by a few influential people whose motives are purely commercial and interests short term. Hoteliers and tour operators must resist temporary profits at the cost of long term benefits. The private sector is the driver of the economy, but it must not drive the country in the wrong direction. It is not the fault of budget tour operators and hoteliers who went into the hospitality business but it is not right that they decide the policies by pressuring the politicians. The regulated cannot be the regulator.
The country must find solutions for those affected to support their livelihood and urge all politicians and bureaucrats to make decisions for the greater good. Bhutan is elevating the experience of tourism. The high value, low volume policy aims to welcome discerning visitors who are appreciative of and sensitive to the values that promote culture and the environment. Apart from cultural festivals and trekking based itineraries concentrated around specific seasons and places, the tourism industry has not been able to tap the full potential of Bhutan’s vast natural, cultural, and social assets.
Visitors are willing to pay a premium to experience the Bhutanese-ness of Bhutan, meaning an uncontrived, authentic, and experiential travel experience to a unique land. Only smaller numbers of such premium visitors under a more liberalised tourism model can ensure maximum value and experience for everyone – from the visitor being able to enjoy a unique experience to the Bhutanese sharing their daily lives and sacred spaces and the country reaping economic benefits. The industry must be able to provide world class services, personal care, and genuine experiences.
Bhutan is not the first and will not be the last to opt for responsible tourism over mass tourism. In Kerala, India, the state government has established a “responsible tourism mission” to ensure that local communities share the benefits. New Zealand announced a post covid goal to attract the global 1% richest as visitors. Venice laments the dwindling of local residents from 150,000 to about 50,000 persons in 2019 because of tourism pressures that included pollution of the waterways in the city. Tourist havens like Thailand and Nepal have expressed regret at not adopting more of a Bhutanese model. Many countries are introducing tourist taxes to ensure sustainable tourism. The list goes on.
Revamping tourism is not about visitor numbers but about sustainability and the quality of experience for both the visitors and the host. Bhutan’s attempt to re-manage its tourist arrivals will contribute to the sustainability of its natural environment and culture and, in fact, the nation’s survival.
Tourism is a strategic asset of the nation. Therefore, all Bhutanese citizens are key stakeholders as enshrined in the Constitution. In the past, tourism enriched a few and neglected the majority; farmers who comprise over 50 % of the population received just crumbs.
The renewed vision for the tourism sector consciously and deliberately places considerations for the future generation at the forefront. This is because the economic makeup of the country will be redefined by exciting new drivers of growth. Reforms in education and skilling, and emphasis on STEM, for example, will help engage youth in high skill industries with the dexterity to navigate and excel in a rapidly-changing technology-driven world.
Tourism is not a panacea for unemployment as governments often believe. Government planners attempted to justify mass tourism as an employment opportunity for Bhutanese. But that does not carry weight in the long run because high-end hotels employ much higher room-to-person ratio and their employees enjoy a higher standard of living. The relatively smaller number of youth who choose to be engaged in tourism must be highly skilled and well paid. Youth must have a diversity of choices and the skills to be engaged in a variety of high-tech industries.
The answer is a return to the vision of high value, low volume tourism with a liberalised pricing model and a bold review of the Sustainable Development Fee. The world is realising that responsible tourism is about managing, not marketing. Tourism must serve Bhutan, not Bhutan serving tourism. Tourism must better the lives of all Bhutanese people. It should strengthen the sovereignty of the nation. Bhutan owes this to the future generations.
The trends and forecasts tell us that it is now or never.
( Dasho Kinley Dorji is the former secretary with the Ministry of Information & Communications)