A country in transition
Over the past 15 years the once isolated Kingdom of Bhutan has undergone great political and social change. It has gone from having an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary democracy, holding its first parliamentary elections in March 2008. Bhutan aims to balance spiritual and material development through sustainable and equitable economic growth while preserving its gross national happiness as the most important indicator of success.
Over the past decade, social indicators and progress to achieving Millennium Development Goals have improved in Bhutan but challenges remain, especially in rural areas where poverty is about 31% of the population compared to about 1.7% of the urban population.
Bhutan has introduced measures to relieve poverty, improve access to basic services and provide quality education. The country has also opened itself to the world through tourism, introducing television and the internet in 1999. Today, Bhutan has an increasingly consumerist society with many young people wearing Western clothes and having Facebook accounts.
Opening up to tourism
Bhutan is one of the world's smallest countries with a population of about 726,000. Its isolation from the world has kept its rich culture and pristine environment intact. Preserving the way of life of its people is a high priority. Limiting the number of tourists has been one way to protect itself from outside influences. The first tourists visited Bhutan in 1974. In that year there were only 300 visitors. In 2011, there were 64,000 international tourists who visited Bhutan, earning the country $US47.7 million, its second highest export amount and 10% of GDP. This is still a small number compared to the 600,000 who visited its neighbour, Nepal. The number of tourists is tightly controlled; tourists are required to book on approved tours with a daily fixed tariff of $US250 and to purchase a visa before arriving. The cost of travelling to Bhutan has also been a major factor in keeping visitor numbers down.
Within the government, there is tension between a desire to maintain policies of cultural preservation and to embrace the employment and other economic opportunities tourism brings. There are concerns that allowing more tourists in will change what makes Bhutan an appealing destination for travellers, namely the 'untouched destination', and that a developed tourism infrastructure will result in less interest from this kind of traveller. Others also argue that development itself is causing Bhutanese culture and society to change, and that it will continue to change in to the future, regardless of how many visitors come to the country.
With 30% of its population living below the national poverty line and a rising youth unemployment rate, the desire for more tourism is winning out.
Tourism, at what cost?
Bhutan is now expanding its tourism industry. It is allowing more people in (up to 100,000 annually), promoting itself as a year-round destination and introducing more airline routes to make it more accessible. The government hopes a carefully managed tourism policy that supports sustainable development should bring increased income and create new jobs.
Tourist numbers spike during major religious festivals and money feeds into local economies. Promoting the local culture to tourists, holding cultural events and focusing on community-based tourism is helping communities preserve and develop Bhutan's culture, particularly among Bhutanese youth, enabling them to earn an income at the same time.
Gross National Happiness Commission
Tourism Council of Bhutan
Belinda Goldsmith, 'Bhutan charms, but "Shangri-La" is no paradise'
World Wildlife Fund – Bhutan