Sandwiched between the Asian giants of China and India, Bhutan first opened its doors to international visitors in the 1970s, adopting a policy of “High Value, Low Impact” tourism. It mandated that foreigners could only visit Bhutan with a tour operator, and must spend a minimum of $250 daily per person during the peak season, and $200 in the off-peak season, while in the country. This cost includes accommodation, transport, and a “sustainable development” fee that goes toward providing free health care and education to Bhutan’s citizens.
The high minimum spend restricted visitors to Bhutan and won it global recognition for having avoided the kind of “over-tourism” that has become a nightmare for many popular destinations. Residents of the Italian city of Venice and the Greek island of Santorini, for example, havee protested against the huge influx of tourists which they say is spoiling the environment and straining local infrastructure.
Now some of these problems are coming to Bhutan, thanks to a different policy it has toward its friendly but populous neighbor: India. Bhutan doesn’t require citizens of India, Bangladesh and the Maldives, together called “regional tourists,” to spend any minimum amount. This, plus the growing affluence of the 600-million-strong Indian middle class, has made Bhutan an attractive travel destination where they can visit for as little as $50 a night.
Last year, around 200,000 Indians visited Bhutan, up from just 50,000 in 2014, according to government data. Meanwhile, only 63,000 “international” or fee-paying tourists went to Bhutan last year. Bhutan, with a population of just 750,000, wasn’t prepared for the sharp increase in regional tourists.
Crowds Overwhelm Buddhist Sites
A large number of Indian tourists enter Bhutan in mini-buses or large SUVs and crowd in on the country’s major tourist sights. Conservationists say the crowds, noise and litter is disturbing the charm of the country.
“A lot of our attractions are Buddhist places, temples, monasteries — places where a traveler would go and seek some solace, tranquility, you know, where you reflect over your life and get a sense of appreciation,” says Karma Tshering, founder of the Bhutan Sustainable Tourism Society. “But those expectations are diluted because you’re just confronted with garbage, noise, mismanagement, too many people running around.”[
This past summer, a video made by Indian actor Siddhant Karnick, in which he called out an Indian group for being noisy at a Buddhist memorial site in Bhutan, went viral. In a phone interview, Karnick says he would support steps to restrict mass tourism so that Bhutan can continue maintaining its balance between man and nature. “We need some places like Bhutan in the world.”
For international visitors who pay the $250-minimum-spend-per-night, the crowds raise questions about Bhutan’s image of exclusivity.
Brent Olson, a tour operator in San Francisco who has been bringing visitors to Bhutan for more than three decades, says in earlier times tour groups would have an entire monastery to themselves and could meditate there. Now, his groups have to stand in line with dozens of other tourists to get inside the same temples.
“If everywhere you go, it’s inundated by budget travelers, then what makes the destination unique?” Olson asks, adding that his clients spend $500 to $1,500 a day in Bhutan. Lately, he has restructured his Bhutan itineraries for different times of the year and to include different locations in the country to avoid crowds.
Visitors walk near a statute of the Buddha Dordenma in Kuensel Phodrang Nature Park in Thimphu.(ARUN SANKAR/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
A Country With Many Forests, No Traffic Lights
To be sure, despite the greater number of visitors, Bhutan remains a place like no other in the world.
More than 60% of the country is covered by forests, as mandated by its Constitution. The country has no traffic lights; busy intersections in the capital city of Thimphu are manned by police officers. Locals typically wear their national dress in public, which for men is a knee-length robe, and for women an embroidered jacket and a long, wraparound skirt.
All buildings in Bhutan are built in the traditional style that uses wood beams and avoids glass and steel. Some of the country’s fortresses, which are called “dzongs,” use an architectural style that does not use a single nail.
Bhutan’s king voluntarily gave up the monarchy and introduced democracy in 2008, though as then-Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said in 2016 at a Ted talk, the public did not call for democracy. The fourth king introduced the idea of “gross national happiness” in 1972 that aims to foster spiritual growth along with economic development, as a way to make people happy.
Happiness, at least the economic kind, hasn’t yet reached all the Bhutanese. Around 8% of the population lives below the national poverty line. Many young people have shifted away from agriculture in recent years, but a lack of jobs has led to high rates of youth unemployment.
Balancing Development and Preservation
Tourism has emerged as a key industry for the economy, and regional and Indian travelers are fueling this growth. A construction boom is underway in the major cities of Thimphu, Paro and other tourist towns, as many landowners are rushing to build budget hotels and guest rooms.[
One such hotel that opened last year is Hotel Dragon, in the village of Bondey, near Paro. The two-star hotel has 10 rooms, which go for as low as $20 a night for a double room, says Tshering, the owner who wanted to be identified by one name only. He says he built the hotel to secure the future of his three young children, because there is a shortage of white-collar jobs in Bhutan. The hotel is occupied mainly by Indian budget travelers, he says, so if the government imposes rules that restrict them, it would be a blow for him.
The Tourism Council of Bhutan, the government body in charge of tourism, has to manage a balance between the economic benefits of more regional tourists and the environmental consequences.
Dorji Dhradhul, director general of the Council, said in an email interview that part of the problem is that most tourists to Bhutan visit only five of the country’s 20 districts. “This so-called overcrowding can be addressed by spreading out tourists to other areas and also putting in place some better management tools,” he says.
Meanwhile, the Council is considering new rules to be imposed on regional tourists, such as requiring them to pay a development fee like what international visitors pay. For visits to certain monasteries and other sights, they may impose an entry fee or caps on total number of visitors.
“Our vision is to continue to make Bhutan live up to the image of being the Last Shangri-La – the tourist paradise on Earth,” Dhradul says.