Perhaps the world of travelers can be divided into two groups: those who don't know where Bhutan is and those who dream of visiting it.
This Himalayan kingdom (located between India and China and east of Nepal, for those in the former group) is about the size of Switzerland but has a population of just 700,000.
Modern Bhutan was united in 1907 by the first of five hereditary kings, but the country remained closed to the outside world for decades, admitting visitors for the first time only in 1974.
That year, it issued 287 visas. It has slowly increased that number and has hovered in the 20,000s for the past three years.
Now the forces of globalization have reached this last refuge of exclusivity. Three years ago, following the introduction of democracy (proposed and advocated by the present and previous king), the government began seriously assessing how tourism could be increased significantly while making sure the country maintained a high level of "GNH."
The abbreviation comes up in almost every conversation with a Bhutanese. While most countries measure their progress by looking at GDP (gross domestic product), people in Bhutan first consider any proposal in light of its impact on Gross National Happiness. If a proposed change is likely to increase GNH, the government will move forward. If it poses a risk of lowering GNH, it is nixed.
I wondered how increasing the number of tourists to a projected 100,000 visitors next year would increase GNH, or even why a government would consider inviting more of the world into a country whose land is relatively unblemished and whose culture is uniquely uncompromised.
During a recent nine-day visit to Bhutan, I posed the question to several officials, including the country's prime minister, Jigme Thinley. (View a slideshow from Arnie's visit to Bhutan by clicking here or on the photos.)
His answer was pragmatic. "Our population is growing, and it cannot be sustained by a traditional agricultural economy," he said. "So what are our options? We're rich in natural resources, minerals and forests, but we're mindful that our ecology is fragile. The future of Bhutan 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 Development report. But tourists needn't brace themselves 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 more people).
But truly independent travel is not allowed. Although visitors can opt out of a group, they must still be accompanied by an escort and driver.
Kesang Wangdi, director general of the Tourism Council of Bhutan, said that to dilute the impact of increasing tourism, his organization is working to open new areas of the country to visitors. The plan is to spread additional tourists around the land and across the seasons, sending them to places previously closed to tourists, during months in which the country traditionally has had very few visitors.
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 list."
Both Thinley and Wangdi expressed the belief that high-end tourists are more culturally and environmentally 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 properties, 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 foreign-owned resort.
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 with the opening of more of the country, there's the promise that there will be even more cultural variety.
All that said, a visitor must be able to tolerate, with good nature, road conditions that are sometimes below Western standards. The National Highway, which winds east-west through the center of the country, is in most places only two narrow, pothole-pocked lanes without guardrails. The section between the two most-visited cities, Thimphu and Paro, is fine, but once you get east of Thimphu, all bets are off.
That said, the scenery is jaw-dropping gorgeous. To simply overfly it would be to forgo one of Bhutan's primary attractions, its scenery.
The opening of the airstrip in Bumthang will permit the best of all worlds: to travel in one direction by car, taking in the views, and then fly back to Paro.
I did notice an inconsistency in the three-star range of accommodations. Some were quite nice; some were quite plain. Most tour operators have arrangements with specific hotels in each location, and they'll levy a surcharge if a traveler chooses to stay in an alternate property. Be sure to check out the reputation of each company's lodging carefully and book with a tour operator that partners with the best hotels for the money.
Starting off in Paro
Unless one is entering overland from India, all trips to Bhutan begin in Paro, site of the international airport.
Situated in a beautiful valley, Paro is a great location to begin and end a visit to Bhutan. Laid back and exotic, it's a relaxing place to adjust to both the culture and the 7,500-foot altitude. Must-sees in Paro include the National Museum (housed in a 350-year-old watchtower), Taktsang Monastery and Drukgyal Dzong.
A dzong is a fortress/monastery, and several are situated in lovely locations throughout the country. Drukgyal is in ruins, destroyed by a fire in the 1950s, but has beautiful views.
Taktsang Monastery, also known as Tiger's Nest, is perched in a seemingly impossible location a half-mile up the rock face of a steep mountain in Paro Valley. The country's top attraction, it should be left for the final day of a visit, so that one leaves on a high note and also because visitors will by then have had time to adjust to the high altitudes. One can either trek up or ride ponies most of the way, but either scenario involves some additional climbing on foot above 10,000 feet.
Kichu Lhakhang monastery is near town, as is the intact Paro Dzong. Both are worth seeing, though most travelers will likely visit more exciting examples of monasteries and dzongs later in the trip.
The capital, Thimphu, is a pastoral 90-minute drive east down a wide, well-surfaced road through gorgeous scenery. Thimphu is far and away the most developed city in the country, with several six-story buildings (the maximum, due to fear of earthquakes), parking problems, a brand-new shopping mall and even a short evening rush-hour. A building boom is currently under way, particularly in the western part of the city. All this might come as a surprise to those who believe exotic Bhutan is uniformly rustic. Even so, by typical Asian standards, it's still a very low-key capital.
An enormous statue of Buddha is being built atop one of the mountains flanking the capital. When the 150-foot structure is complete, it will also contain a display of smaller Buddha statuary in an exhibit hall in its base.
On the way back down to town from the Buddha, clients can visit the National Memorial Chorten, a center of religious activity where crowds of Bhutanese spin prayer wheels as they circumambulate a whitewashed, gold-topped spire.
There are two other must-sees in Thimphu: archery contests and, curiously, the post office.
In small countries, postage stamps sold to collectors can be an important revenue source, and Bhutan has become quite creative to attract philatelists. At a museum and shop within the post office, you can purchase holographic stamps, stamps that are also DVDs on historical topics and stamps commemorating everything from the cuteness of kittens to man's landing on the moon. And for a small fee, they'll take your photo and sell you a sheet of stamps with your likeness on them.
Archery is Bhutan's national sport, and contests (admission is free) were held each day I stopped by the archery stadium. The shooting is impressive, but what I really liked was the showboating after a successful hit (accompanied by a short but joyous dance) and the taunts one team hurled at another after a missed shot. (My guide translated: "Oh man, you missed it! The target is here! It's empty; fill it up!")
The Thimphu zoo is the least populated I've ever seen, with only three species: takin, the country's endangered national animal; small barking deer; and larger sambar deer. It's worth a stop to see the takin, which looks as if it's the offspring of a mountain goat and a moose.
Heading east from Thimphu, the road begins to deteriorate, but the scenery becomes even more stunning. A highlight of any trip to Bhutan is Dochula Pass, about 20 miles east of the capital.
The main attraction is a collection of 100 white, gold and red shrines known as chorten atop a 9,900-foot pass. One feels as if truly standing on the world's rooftop. The combination of the chorten, the panoramic mountain views and hundreds of prayer flags fluttering is extraordinary.
Punakha Dzong, not far past the pass, is beautifully situated along the Puna Tsang Chu River near Punakha. Like most of the dzongs, it still operates as a regional administrative and religious center, and it's important that women dress modestly when visiting a dzong or monastery (long-sleeve shirts and a long skirt or pants). The temple in Punakha Dzong was the most impressive of any that I saw.
The small town of Wangdu Phodrang has an unexpected, beautiful and well-maintained local property, the Dragon's Nest Resort, as well as a charming town market. (If you like to eat fiddlehead ferns, you've come to the right place.)
A word or two about Bhutanese food. Outside of a small handful of restaurants in the capital and Paro, don't expect to find Western food. The cuisine is quite varied, with meat, vegetables (often in a spicy cheese sauce), mushrooms and river fish easily found. But if you don't like spicy food, the subtlety of other flavoring will be lost, so visitors who can't tolerate hot peppers should ask that their meal be toned down.
Two mountain passes, a dozen waterfalls, a score of fog-shrouded mountaintops and pastoral valleys later and you've reached Bumthang (pronounced, I regret to say, "boom-tong"). It's an important historical and religious region, with its own dzong, some ancient and very impressive monasteries, an old royal palace and idyllic valley scenery.
We stayed at the improbably named Swiss Guest House, which was in fact started by a Swiss couple in the 1980s. They imported their cheese- and beer-making skills, as well, and if you're longing for raclette or fondue washed down with craft beer, you'll be delighted there.
There's no question in my mind that Bhutan has enough unique attractions to draw 100,000 people a year. But might such an influx of visitors, about four times more arrivals than the country has seen before, diminish its attractiveness as a destination or the Bhutanese way of life? I asked the prime minister if more tourism might, in unintended ways, compromise GNH.
"There are people who demonize tourism as something that has an adverse impact on society, but we see it in a different way," Thinley replied. "Our aim is not to allow unlimited growth and expansion. By policy, the number of tourists arriving and their impact cannot be disproportionate to our absorptive capacity."
The emphasis on tourism, in his estimation, actually protects and preserves Bhutanese culture. "The early tourists would stop a dance at a festival and ask a dancer to pose," he said. "There was no proper way to ensure that when people visited a temple, they would not commit sacrilege or remove items. We now have the capability to make sure tours are properly conducted. We don't want to be restrictive, but we also don't want to be a spectacle or allow our culture to be diluted or modified simply to please tourists."
Thinley sees well-managed tourism as not only good but essential. "We are building up the infrastructure, and whatever we build for tourists, the Bhutanese share, as well. They enjoy it when money brought in by tourists allows us to restore a temple. Or revive a festival that has been discontinued. It's the Bhutanese who benefit, and the pride of being Bhutanese sustains and ensures the survival of our country."
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.
This article has been updated to note that the Punakha Dzaon is located on the Puna Tsang Chu River rather than the Mangdechhu, as previously stated.