Bhutan is a nice example of using national resource management to achieve utmost efficiency, particularly in the tourism area.
With a size close to Switzerland, the land-locked country in the embrace of the great Himalayan mountain range has decided to develop its economy in a way that leaves a minimal effect on the environment and society. And I think the way Bhutan has set its development master plan is quite interesting.
With a population of about 700,000 and very limited flat land, the country markets itself as a premium tourist destination by utilising its unique art and culture, which have been kept hidden behind snow-capped peaks for centuries, to pull in visitors.
Bhutan does not open itself to every tourist, nor does it allow mass consumption of its precious cultural and natural resources. Valuing its national assets and cultural heritage, the government has adopted a policy under which it's gradually opened the country to a top class of tourists. The policy stipulates all visitors must come through a licensed tour operator and are required to pay a minimum daily tariff of US$250 (about 7,500 baht) per person during high season and US$200 in low season. Package tours, at the same time, mean accompanying guides control the movement of visitors who are only allowed into areas designated accessible to them by the government.
Thuji Dorji Nadik, acting managing director of Tourism Council of Bhutan, was asked why he doesn't want mass tourism even though the country needs a huge budget for infrastructure development. He said, "I don't want Bhutan to be like Khao San Road, allowing cheap tourists to consume our resources and ruin the country."
The minimum daily tariff policy is a bit harsh since it does not include air tickets, visas and guide fees. Of the US$250 a tourist has to pay daily while in Bhutan, US$65 goes to the government. Travellers do complain about the high cost of visiting Bhutan, but the country has witnessed a remarkable rise in tourist numbers in recent years.
In 2009, the country welcomed about 23,000 tourists. The figure rose to 40,000 in 2010 and 64,000 last year. This rapid growth was partly fuelled by the news of the coronation of King Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck in late 2008, which was when the world really got to know this tiny kingdom hidden in the Himalayas, and Bhutan quickly became a dream destination for tourists worldwide. Like the tourism business, the government does not allow the country's development to grow uninhibited or without a plan, and maintenance of beauty is an essential element. While construction is booming, Bhutan has regulations for all buildings to mirror national art and architecture. New buildings and houses must be adorned with native paintings, particularly the window frames and roofs, and they all appear beautiful.
I think high caution is a nice approach. This niche-market policy enables Bhutan to generate revenue by utilising minimal resources while causing as little impact as possible on its sensitive culture.
Strict control of its national identity is essential for the tourism industry, I think. Though business-minded people may say the strict regulations make their operational costs higher, it helps maintain tourism products in the long run.
There are many examples of tourist destinations that lost their character and uniqueness long before they realised their real value. I think such damage can travel faster in this digital era where pictures of destinations can be transmitted worldwide in minutes.
Chiang Khan in Thailand's Loei province was a serene destination a few years ago, a place where tourist could peacefully stroll around a sleepy town of old wooden houses, but today it's packed with chic coffee shops and guesthouses.
Koh Lipe, a remote and pristine island off Satun province, became another Phi Phi after it was promoted as Thailand's Maldives and business people rushed to occupy every single square inch on the island. And Vang Vieng in Laos is now packed with bars, restaurants, and high-rise hotels by the Nam Song river, just 10 years after it was first visited by backpackers.
More tourists means higher revenue. However, if mass tourism and globalisation have such serious side effects, I think development with high caution like Bhutan is an interesting alternative.
Peerawat Jariyasombat is a travel writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.
About the author
- Writer: Peerawat Jariyasombat
Position: Travel Reporter