ful that our ecology is fragile. The future of Bhu-
tan must be based on a sustainable, green economy.
Tourism has been identified.”
Tourism is already the second-largest sector of
the economy (behind the export of hydroelectric
power to India), though visitors contributed only
$36 million to the economy last year. Bhutan is a
poor nation by international aid agency standards.
Almost half the country earns less than $2 a day per
capita, according to a United Nations Human De-
velopment report. But tourists needn’t brace them-
selves against seeing abject poverty.
Rather, Bhutan’s subsistence farming-based economy
means that although average citizens don’t earn much
money, they nonetheless have shelter, food and, according to the New Economics Foundation, happiness. Bhutan ranks 17th in the foundation’s “happiness” index,
well above G8 powerhouses Germany (51st), Italy (69th),
France (71st), the U.K. (74th), Japan (75th), Canada
(89th), Russia (108th) and the U.S. (114th).
To minimize the potential negatives of tourism, the nation is pursuing “high-value, low-impact” tourists. Visitors are required to spend a minimum of $200 per day per
person, which covers lodging, food, a guide and driver. Of
the $200, the government keeps $65.
That $200 minimum permits one to travel with a
group; all bookings go through a tour operator. At the
minimum per-diem level, visitors will likely be put primarily in three-star lodging. Those who desire four- or
five-star properties will pay a surcharge, as will anyone
wanting to travel without a group (defined as three or
India Tibet Nepal
But truly independent travel is
not allowed. Although visitors can
opt out of a group, they must still
be accompanied by an escort and
Kesang Wangdi, director general
of the Tourism Council of Bhutan,
Arrivals have also been limited by the number of available air seats into Bhutan. Though the country technically
has an “open skies” policy, the three aircraft of the national carrier, Drukair, are the only planes flying into the
country’s only airport, in Paro. Because Paro is affected
by seasonal winds and altitude-related weight limitations,
there is a de facto cap in what has traditionally been the
high tourist season.
Three additional airstrips are in the works: One, in
Bumthang, in central Bhutan, will open this month, and
next year landing strips will be completed in Tashigang in
the east and Gelyephug in the south.
While there are still areas closed to visitors, the number of sites that are open has expanded significantly as the
country prepares to welcome more tourists.
“Until three months ago, we maintained a positive list
of sites that tourists could
visit,” Thinley said. “We
have reversed that; now
there is a small negative
Both Thinley and Wang-
di expressed the belief that
high-end tourists are more culturally and environmen-
tally sensitive than others. To attract and house upscale
travelers, the country is encouraging foreign hospitality
companies to come in and build four- and five-star prop-
erties, with full ownership rights, the ability to manage
freely and to expatriate profits.
Three companies have responded so far: Como, with
its Uma brand, in Paro; Taj, with a property in Thimphu;
and Aman, with resorts in Paro, Thimphu, Bumthang,
Punakha and Gangtey.
Meanwhile, the Bhutanese themselves have developed
some exceptional five-star properties. I stayed in the
Zhiwa Ling in Paro, which can hold its own against any
Ultimately, the question for travel counselors is whether the experience — the scenery, sights, cultural interactions and infrastructure — justifies the long haul to get
there and the high daily minimum spend.
Based on my stay, which included nights in three-,
four- and five-star properties, I would answer with a resounding yes. For the right client. In my estimation, it’s
the most consistently beautiful country in the world, and
because of its previous self-imposed isolation, its culture is distinct, relatively pure and very attractive. And
Top, the town of Paro, in a valley cut
by the Wang Chhu river, as seen from
the National Museum. Left, three residents of Paro. The man on the right is
wearing a gho, the national dress of
Bhutan. Right, the market in Wangdu
See BHUTAN on Page 20
OCTOBER 10, 2011