Travesty in travel and beyond: the Bhutan illusion

bhutan new tourism policy

Exclusive in the unfurling of its identity, whether that be in the prominence of its touristry appeal as the last Shangri la or its as exclusive model in tourism, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan dwells in a dimension distinctive partly by means of its own devising. Unique even in quite a few of its ideologies, mostly in relation to the continuing thrust on Gross National Happiness GNP over the Gross Domestic Product, this nation of many a fancies certainly permeating its airs has played well to maintain its allure in the abstract. If only however the reality of this conceiving would have been also as rosy as the purported predominance of it that the proud proclamation of this country of happiness would not fail to live up to the facts of its establishing.

Sure, one might be naive to dismiss our claim as one ‘non representative’ facet of the greater Bhutanese identity that had birthed in fact this whole notion of the GNP, much looked up to indeed in the world circles. But consider the dismal ranks on which Bhutan has lately found itself to be demoted to- and in a continuing streak of consistency at that- and the paradox that happiness is empirically established to be seems to rob this land of peace and tranquility and serenity of the greater chunk of what ironically precedes it in essence.

Happiness however is not even a consideration in the current situation that this destination claiming highly of its touristry prestige finds itself in, of course by its own availing. The mountainous nation has been rather reserved in its tourism policy ever since it granted international access to its idyllic expanse under a strict ‘high end, low volume’ regime. As an attempt in preserving intact its rich environmental endowing through a promoting of the sustainable tourism ideology, a mandatory fee of $250 was what it took most foreign tourists to be allowed entry into this Land of the Thunder Dragon. Out of this not any mere amount indeed, a significant still $65 accrued directly to the government as what the imposing officials refers to as the Sustainable Development Fee.

Cut to the current year of 2022 after two full seasons of COVID ravaged ‘casualties’ of the mobility kind and the Thunder Dragon seems to be even more aggressive in asserting its presence in the world. The $65 imposition in SDF itself has more than tripled to a whopping $200 while what the revamped criteria spells for prospective Indian tourists to its neighbouring country is a requirement in shelling out ₹1200 per head per day of their stay. Other terms and conditions would accompany more ‘enthusiastic’ desires in exploring the unadulterated beauty of the nation, with however a silver lining emerging in less restricted options in travelling. Unlike the pre COVID era when tourists to Bhutan would be entitled merely to a peek of the capital Thimphu and the picturesque town of Paro, the levying of a greater amount of fees accounts for the additional liberty in pushing the limits of travelling by quite some extent.

That Bhutan has quite daringly emerged upon this newer route of treading in economic liberties galore is one obviously met with more criticism than applause. Welcoming indeed in further assertion of its long standing ‘allegiance’ to the environment which indeed is what ups its tourism value in the first place might be a great plus. But offset by a greater extent in the minuses is the displeasure among the very folks to whom this arrangement is availing, making therefore the irony prevalent throughout this display of the farce rather prominent.

The effects of it have been as concrete in both its feel and show, with the country reporting dismal percentage stats in tourism. Interestingly, that Bhutan devised quite the strategic period of welcoming to be coinciding with the festive time in the country- the past trends of which buzzed in quite some serious excitement and the repercussions of this really taxing policy are more than evident rather early on. And while this might be sad for the world as a whole in virtually losing out to many a unique experiences of tourism and travel, the reality is not particularly one occurring as promising to even the common Bhutanese.

Extending the adverse impacts of this carefully worked out scheme upon the larger fore of tourism to associate livelihoods ingrained therein is the startling prospect staring into the hapless eyes of these common people. Why just economic prospects though, consider also the potential harm that might be falling upon the environment perhaps in the form of crammed itineraries of tourists seeking to make the most of those exorbitant charges in a very short time and nowhere is Bhutan winning in its ‘game’ of pride playing.

That Bhutan’s tourism policy has long been bashed as elitist with its focus on ‘high value’ tourism translating instead as a favoring of the wealthy finds thus further basis in being with this latest development across the border. And particularly for the Indian people long believing in the identity of her bordering ‘brother’, the stipulating of this rate of 1,200 rupees per day is a bit too hefty to handle. Specifically when Bhutan finds itself immensely benefitting from the Indian identity, being as it is the biggest receiver of our foreign aid, the imposition of the travel fee upon its citizens is one ungrateful smirk in the face of irony.

Of course the country has forwarded its justification for legitimately charging its righteous deserving of a Sustainable Development Fee. Being a small country with little natural resources that they need to conserve in order to make do with it for longer might come across as a strong point in validation. But consider the extent of resourcefulness of the Indian kind that Bhutan is dependent on in a whopping 80% of its budgetary composition and the ‘audacity’ manifesting through this new turn of events is one to take note of indeed.

From the very basis of their subsistence through rice being majorly an Indian export to their essential infrastructure of highways and requirements in hydropower projects all built and maintained with Indian support, Bhutan is anything but exclusively made up of own standing. To reserve therefore their resources and realm as only their own is but a refuting of the very foundation upon which it is today able to strive and thrive as a country outside the renown of its breathtaking beauty.

That its reputation is much constructed and less availed makes for a revealing even outside the Indian involving though. Famous indeed in its rolling out of the concept of Gross National Happiness and driving even other nations to pursue this path in ‘true development’ might have brought the focus upon Bhutan as a nation truly dedicated to the welfare of its citizens. Deconstruct however the notion of its underlying pathos and the happiness might well be a misleading in such intent that occurs as hypocrisy almost. That in fact has been a much real point of view held by the Refugee Council of Australia, ironically arising from the contemplations of a country that sums up much of the present day dreams of the disoriented perhaps but supposedly happy still last Shangri-la on earth.

gross national happiness bhutan
Source: GSDM

The hypocrisy though did not manage to hold itself up for long as well. After a few initial years of dwelling in the glory of being indeed one of the happiest countries on earth, at least in its own proclaiming, the beam weaned away and latest reports have consistently found it residing instead on the lower rungs of its own measure. That however has been an availing only finding greater expression now while existing since forever almost as many a criticisms of the ambiguously ambitious concept seems to point to, right from its inception.

As a nation doomed in the dubious distinction of practicing ethnic cleansing of the Lhotshampas who in fact are ethnic Bhutanese people of Nepali descent, this identity of a Gross National Happiness claim is appalling indeed in its contrast. Without the grant of basic rights to humans in the first place, Bhutan’s conjuring for itself that identity in essential development is another wide faced laugh indeed though not one alluding to the ‘ha’s of happiness. It instead is a mockery of its own self, continuing throughout to unraveling its own royal power by restricting minority rights as well as by seeking to disregard the freedom of religion of its non Hindu and non Buddhist citizens.

Other assertions of human rights violation exist as well, mainly in the form of imprisonment for the Nepali speaking political protesters allegedly protesting against the government in the 1990s. There would be instances of more ‘ordinary’ but never any less serious oppression as well with everything from restrictions placed on freedom of assembly to freedom of press prevailing rampantly as the rule indeed in this so called utopia of ultimate riches. Bhutan is non discriminating in its discriminatory prominence, even as issues of equity and universality continue to be not adhered so much high value in its scope of thought.

What ensues out of this method in discriminating and an apathetic pursuing of equality is another farce of which the mountainous nation has many a peaks of residing. Thus even when basic health care and primary education appeals in their free status in Bhutan, the realisation of the impact that it might have led to if implemented in universality as not just a free resource but one easily accessible and as efficiently attending as well isn’t particularly explored in reality. The rich get as rich as they can while the poor continue to get further sucked into the vicious circle of poverty, with the royal family managing to keep matters in their hands by multiple such inroads into all areas of significance.

Returning though to the whole thrust on environmental accountability and sustainability upon which emerged this not so unwarranted debate of a Bhutanese standpoint and the truth is one as incomplete in itself. It had been a regard for environment that spurred this whole different approach to tourism in the country, while being even enormous a consideration driving forward the newer and much aggravated stance in high value tourism. Environment again is what finds preference in the GNH framework with its conservation occurring as second of the four pillars of that philosophy. It makes for quite a striking assertion in double standards then that Bhutan seems to be stealthily pursuing in its very noble delivering of conscientiousness with perhaps an agenda in self glorification. How else would one explain the many mega dams and hydro projects sprouting up throughout the country expanding across the fragile ranges of a Himalayan landscape? Shouldn’t this extent in consideration extend also to their domestic affairs in conducting what is business indeed of a volume more than the usual?

That though is only one percent of the whole problem. Many such other hidden or quite evident as well prospects in exploitation only emphasise and ratify even the Bhutan paradox of wanting to reside in one spectrum of existence and resting instead along another dimension of its calling. Like it has been doing since what feels like forever almost, choosing to while away in blissful ignorance- or let’s say projected ignorance- their privileged status in what they call happiness. A downward dive into the spiralling depths of an economic crisis that sees them toying with everything from an ever increasing volume on debt to over reliance on imports as well as youth unemployment and diminishing interest in the traditional practice of agriculture as also grappling with the considerable public sentiment of averseness specifically playing out through the newer entrant of social media– and Bhutan is anything but the Shangri-la it aspires to be, not so much in action perhaps as it does by forcibly tagging along that once happy identity.

Setting back also by quite a few steps the free and flamboyant unfurling of what was intended to be holistic happiness is- quite surprisingly, the newer democratic identity of the country. As a ‘choice’ ‘imposed’ by the King upon his people deriding thus the very essence of what democracy should be, Bhutan has time and again proved its potential in doing indeed all things differently. No wonder even after the democratic transition, ironic again in its mechanism of coming to be, the royals of the country are expected to be regarded as even more than royalty, to the extent that public criticising of their person and policies occur as an offence punishable under blasphemy laws.

The mentality of such assertion continues as well in the perceivedly more accountable system of governance that Bhutan dwells in today with freedom of speech impeded in its attaining of true and absolute expression indeed. Not asserting as a one off case in uncharacteristicness but manifesting in fact as a way of life, underlining therefore time and again the authority that the ones who rule over Bhutan in monarchy as well as in democracy has always wanted to yield over the common people subject to that disparity of governance in terms of the administrative and financial and social and pretty much every aspect of occurring. Draw also upon the appalling restriction of freedom that dawns as that inexplicable, confounding rather denial of voting rights to the monks and religious figures of the country, apart from also those in jail and democracy in Bhutan is no any ideal that the world needs to look up to. If anything, it perhaps is a precedent in avoidance that Bhutan has managed to set, across all aspects of its doing and being and existing dictating thus the world scenario in terms that is feeble in its trembling rather than dragon like in thundering.