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Drukyul, or the Land of the Thunder Dragon as Bhutan calls itself, is a country of striking contrasts and uncommon harmony - a place where people can find peace and do business, experience living heritage, and discover wilderness teeming with life. Carissa Nimah, Chief Marketing Officer, Department of Tourism, Royal Government of Bhutan discusses with The Asian Footprints why Bhutan’s new brand promotion ‘Believe’ is all about its sustainable tourism development policies, the elevation of guest experiences, and unadulterated happiness.

June Mukherjee, New Delhi, February 28, 2023

Tell me about life and the people of Bhutan.

As you know the people of Bhutan are easy-going, they prefer to keep quality of life on top of their priority list. Education, gender balance, employment, cultural establishments, and government organisations all work in an orchestrated manner so that the lifestyle of the people is not disturbed. Women are at the forefront of society, doing all sorts of work. And most importantly Bhutanese people do love their country a lot and love to live in their country. They speak their local language, Dzongkha (Bhutanese), as well as English quite well, especially those in the government, international business, and hospitality sectors.

Tourism is a prime industry of the country, and Bhutanese people are generally hospitable by nature. You will hardly get a 'no' from the host if you make a request. Red rice, buckwheat, and maize are the staples of Bhutanese cuisine. The local diet also includes pork, beef, yak meat, chicken, and lamb. Soups and stews of meat and dried vegetables spiced with chillies and cheese are prepared at the households. Dairy foods, particularly butter and cheese from yaks and cows, are also popular, and indeed almost all milk is turned into butter and cheese. Popular beverages include butter tea, black tea, locally brewed Ara (rice wine) and beer.

The famous mask dance of the drums from Drametse, was inscribed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2008. The national dress for Bhutanese men is Gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt known as the Kera. Women wear an ankle-length dress, the Kira, which is clipped at the shoulders with two identical brooches called the Koma and tied at the waist with Kera. In Bhutanese families, inheritance generally passes matrilineally through the female rather than the male line. Daughters will inherit their parents' house. A man is expected to make his own way in the world and often moves to his wife's home.

Bhutan is a country that puts happiness on top of its agenda. How do they do that?

It is an international phenomenon that Bhutan puts happiness on top and stays on top of the happiness index in the global charts. The point here is how the people of Bhutan live a life of self-discipline making the optimum use of what life offers. With the abundance of nature, beautiful landscapes and clean air, the smiling and religious Bhutanese try to live a life that brings more happiness and joy to them. Not only that, they are conscious enough to take care of their surroundings, and their locale and are extremely welcoming to foreign guests. The people of Bhutan have a deeper understanding to strengthen ties of friendship based on appreciation and respect for different cultures and lifestyles.

Let’s talk about Bhutan as a tourist destination.

Bhutan is an incredibly breathtaking destination, and it has so many layers waiting to be revealed and shared by visitors. Far away from the hustle and bustle of the swanky tourism capitals, Bhutan is a unique case of simple life, pure happiness, people-to-people connection, a respite from the busy schedule and revelation of the truth of life.

Bhutan is regarded as one of the most exclusive travel destinations in the world. It enjoys a reputation for authenticity, remoteness and a well-protected cultural heritage and natural environment. Today our tourism is a vibrant business with a high potential for growth and further development. Bhutan is ideal for an immersive journey.

What can a first-time traveller expect while travelling to Bhutan?

With a rich tapestry of ethnicities, all proudly Bhutanese, the peace-loving Buddhist nation embodies deeply ingrained values: compassion, inclusivity, and hospitality. You will instantly fall in love with the country. Its history is both ancient and recent, and weaves together folklore and fact, perched high in the Himalayas, Drukyul, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, existed almost undisturbed for centuries, allowing unique traditions and ways of life to flourish. The visa process is now made very simple and interesting itineraries and attractive packages are being floated by the operators to welcome quality tourists.

From rural homes to restaurants, Bhutan is full of flavour. From strenuous climbs to serene sound healing, white-water rafting or hot-stone bathing, mountain biking or meditation – the choices are as varied as the terrain, and as certain to salve spirits and promote relaxation. Alongside the culture-packed cities, rural life of Bhutan quietly unfolds with an unrivalled variety of landscapes of lowland valleys, subtropical dells, pine-forested hillsides and snow-capped mountains and glaciers. The dark and unpolluted skies of Bhutan offer stargazers pure delight. On top of everything, there are people of Bhutan, who are masters in archery as well as art, and one of the happiest nations in the world. Hence on your first visit to Bhutan expect a mindful slow travel through the breathtaking terrains and capturing some memorable moments with the happy faces of the land.

Post-pandemic, when most of the countries opened their borders, Bhutan remained a little careful. How do you explain this approach compared to others?

Thank you for pointing it in the right direction, careful is the right word. Bhutan has never been a mass market destination. We are also a country with lesser population. The tourism policy of Bhutan has never allowed a free flow of tourists to overload our destinations and go reckless. The Royal Government of Bhutan adheres strongly to a policy of 'High Value, Low Volume' tourism which serves the purpose of creating an image of exclusivity and high yield for Bhutan. We have always maintained this good balance with more tilt on quality tourists who are keen to explore the Kingdom in a sustainable and responsible way. We have even taken a strong measure to charge SDF from all foreign tourists coming to Bhutan, but only to keep our land, our environment and our climate safe and secure for the future. The idea is to make sure that the incoming tourists are consciously paying for the sustainable tourism movement of Bhutan and are leaving their contributions behind.

Can you explain more about SDF?

As a small country we think Bhutan has a lot to say to the rest of the world on sustainability and protection of the environment and nature for the future. When it comes to the environmental issues of Bhutan, it has always taken stringent measures to protect the land and its people. In this matter Bhutan is much ahead of its time compared to many other countries. The future of the Kingdom of Bhutan requires us to protect and preserve our heritage but at the same time also forge new pathways leading forthcoming generations to fresh possibilities. From our reopening on September 23, 2022, we ask each visitor to Bhutan to make an active and meaningful contribution to our Kingdom’s preservation and progress. The Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) charged at foreign visitors ($200 per head per night except for the Indians) enables investment in transformative programmes that sustain our cultural traditions, protect our environment, upgrade infrastructure, and build our resilience. Indian tourists are required to pay INR 1200 per head per day when they are coming to Bhutan.

Critically, it supports the creation of training, mentorships and further education that will create long-term opportunities for our young people. Your contribution is not only a critical investment, it is a gesture of belief in our ambitions and our capacity to achieve them. We like to believe that the SDF will create additional value for guests who come to Bhutan, rather than an additional cost. Another way of looking at the SDF is a ‘pay it forward’ concept, whereby you will ensure that future visitors to Bhutan will get an as good, or even better experience. The SDF provides us with essential resources as we work towards realising our vision for a thriving Bhutan for young people now and in future. We are grateful for our visitors’ trust and support for our nation’s evolution.

How is the Bhutanese tourism industry coming back to normalcy after the pandemic disaster?

As the tourism industry of Bhutan is founded on the principle of sustainability, the industry believes from the bottom of its heart that tourism must be environmentally and ecologically friendly, socially and culturally acceptable and economically viable. The Royal Government of Bhutan recognises that tourism is a worldwide phenomenon and an important means of achieving socioeconomic development, particularly for a developing country like Bhutan. During the disaster as much support as possible was given to the industry workers like employees, tour guides etc. to stay afloat. The Department of Tourism in Bhutan believes in creating a self-sufficient support system which helps the travel and tourism industry practitioners. Though entry to Bhutan is slowly opening and carefully limited, we are trying to help our industry partners by promoting their hotels, and resorts on various international platforms.

Towards achieving this objective, the Royal Government of Bhutan has adopted a very cautious approach to the growth and development of the tourism industry in Bhutan. Its tremendous potential as a truly indigenous industry and the clear comparative advantages Bhutan enjoys are compelling reasons to promote Bhutan as a high-end tourist destination in a manner which accords with the tenets of Gross National Happiness.

How is Bhutan’s new tourism policy evolving?

After the reopening of borders for international guests, Bhutan has unveiled a new tourism strategy, underpinned by transformations in three key areas: enhancements to its sustainable development policies, infrastructure upgrades, and the elevation of the guest experiences. In his statement, the Prime Minister of Bhutan Dr. Lotay Tshering had said that, typically, ‘high value’ is understood as exclusive high-end products and extravagant recreational facilities. But that is not Bhutan. And ‘low volume’ does not mean limiting the number of visitors. We will appreciate everyone who visits us to treasure our values, while we also learn as much from them. While those working in the tourism sector will represent us at the forefront, the entire nation is the tourism industry and every Bhutanese is a host.

What is the vision for the future?

As some of the Sustainable Development Fee funds go towards offsetting the carbon footprint of visitors by planting trees, upskilling workers in the tourism sector, cleaning and maintaining trails, reducing the country’s reliance on fossil fuels and electrifying Bhutan’s transportation sector, all our endeavours and projects are backed by futuristic thinking. As a country that is vulnerable to the effects of climate change (experiencing melting glaciers, floods and unpredictable weather patterns), Bhutan will also be stepping up its efforts to maintain its status as one of only a handful of carbon-negative countries in the world. In 2021, Bhutan sequestered 9.4 million tonnes of carbon against its emission capacity of 3.8 million tonnes.

Beyond protecting Bhutan’s natural environment, the SDF will also be directed towards activities that preserve Bhutan’s built and living cultural heritage, including architecture and traditional values, as well as meaningful environmental projects.
We are aware that the new SDF brings with it a certain expectation when it comes to standards of quality and services. So, Bhutan is committed to enhancing the guest experience – whether that is through the quality of services received, the cleanliness and accessibility of our infrastructure, by limiting the number of cars on our roads, or by limiting the number of people who visit our sacred sites. By doing so, we protect the experience for visitors to Bhutan, as we look forward to providing authentic experiences supported by world-class services and personal care. Bhutan’s new tagline, ‘Believe’, reflects this determined focus on the future, as well as the transformative journeys experienced by its guests.

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