I’ve traveled to Bhutan many times over the past eleven years, taking student groups to the country as an experience unlike any other in the modern world. These trips have been transformative for many travelers and continuing such travel is my goal for the coming years (assuming, of course, a break in the COVID crisis).
Currently, the Tourism Council of Bhutan is proposing sweeping changes to the way tourism operates within the country as people consider the role of tourism in Bhutan. Currently, Bhutan operates a minimum daily rate for tourists from countries outside of the SAARC nations. Essentially, tourists to Bhutan contract with a local company and pay a minimum standard daily rate for travel. This rate includes housing, transportation in the country, food, and the services of a licensed tour guide.
As a traveler to Bhutan and the leader of student groups to the country, the existing structure works well for travelers on a specific budget. I can state, clearly, what the cost of travel will be in Bhutan, and students and their parents can manage the costs based on very clear guidelines. For students traveling on a tight budget, the Minimum Daily Package Rate (MDPR) serves the needs of my group well and allows us to plan accordingly. Further, in my years traveling in Bhutan, the quality of service, lodging, and the like have exceeded the needs of my travelers, making the experiences in Bhutan life changing and exceptional.
These kinds of exceptional experiences are the goal of a movement in Bhutan that encourages sustainable travel. Karma Tshering, the founder of the Bhutan Sustainable Tourism Society has urged lawmakers in the country to maintain the high value, low volume approach to travel, ensuring that the MDPR stays in place and serves the needs of all of the people employed by the tourism industry. Tshering has said, “It was evident that if planned and implemented in consultation with the local people and other relevant partners, tourism has the potential to offer a symbiotic relationship in promoting socio-economic development, cultural preservation and biodiversity conservation. Tourism is not a single sector responsibility – as it used to be perceived by people in my country – but a multi-dimensional concept which requires constant communications, collaboration, and partnerships.” (https://sustainability-leaders.com/interview-karma-tshering-bhutan/).
Currently, the Tourism Council of Bhutan is proposing a dramatic shift in the way both money is collected and the elimination of the minimum daily rate. The new proposal states that tourists would pay a standard $325 US plus an additional $30 US per day in country for a 14 day tour. This change represents a decline in the real dollars charged for travel in Bhutan. Effectively, this would impact the lives of individuals who are part of the tourism industry. Further, the reduced price will transform the high value, low volume approach and encourage high volume travel changing the very nature of the industry and transforming Bhutan from a selective destination to just another place to check off the bucket list.
My concern for the Bhutanese is that such changes to the tourism industry will impact religious, cultural, historical, and environmental concerns not to mention the lives of people relying on income from tourism. Driving down the cost of travel in Bhutan may appear to be a way to increase overall income, and would result in declines in all of the areas I mentioned. It doesn’t take much effort to see how high volume tourism impacts society and culture in nation-states in Asia. That effect can be traumatic and determental to the people who live in these areas.
High volume tourism is not unique to Asia and examples of such tourism in countries around the world and attest to its profound impact on local culture and customs. Living in New Mexico in the United States, I can attest to the changes high volume tourism has had on everything from infrastructure (roads, bridges, bike paths) to the lives people lead. For example, in places like Santa Fe, New Mexico a transient community that ebbs and flows with tourism in the city alters the cultural context of the community. As a result, a kind of Disneyland quality emerges that whitewashes the cultural story of the people and the place, creating a mythological representation of the history, culture, and people who live in the area. Culture is sold in trinkets and souvenirs, and these changes alter the very nature of the place. In this way, institutions like religion become a commodity, as the original Spanish Catholic Church is sold as a tourist attraction, stripping the deep spirituality into a picture postcard. Millions come to the city to be awed by the architecture and a glossy, magazine style view of the city.
My concern, then, is that changing the well-established structure of the tourism industry will fundamentally alter the nature of culture and society. Of course, some of these kinds of changes can benefit Bhutan and some people. It is my belief, however, that such changes result in the society loosing control over their culture as the very soul of the country is sold as a commodity on the open market. While change is inevitable and we all face impermanence in the lives we live, maintaining cultural integrity is something worth fighting for in this age of tourism and the quick sale. I will be interested to see how Bhutan balances the many social, cultural, and economic challenges it faces, and hope, for the sake of the Bhutanese people, that these changes come with clarity of vision about what the future may hold.
May you be happy, May you be well.