A landlocked nation of 750,000 perched in the stunning, almost mystical valleys of the Himalayas, Bhutan is a place of natural beauty. This is exceptional even in a region with such treasures as Tibet, Nepal, and the Kashmir valley, and to many outsiders, the country is perceived as a modern Shangri-La. Such a view has been driven by government policies: to aim to increase happiness rather than maximise GDP; and to have ‘high value, low quantity’ tourism to protect its natural beauty. The latter policy, however, is increasingly under threat. For a few years now, Bhutan has charged foreign visitors the eyewatering sum of $250 per day, including a visa and sustainable development fee, to visit. As a sign of goodwill to its close neighbours, including India, the country waived this fee and allowed Indians to visit the country free-ofcharge. But in recent months, not only has it become increasingly easy to visit Bhutan from India, it is also now in vogue with famous cricketers, Bollywood stars and bikers posting their holiday snaps from the country on social media. In 2018 alone, the number of visitors rose by 10%: and almost all of these tourists were Indian
In response, the Bhutanese government has announced that Indian tourists will now have to pay $17 per day as a significantly reduced version of the sustainable development fee. This ostensibly is to compensate for the required protection of the environment that their visiting makes necessary. This policy combines two aims. On the one hand, it evokes the principle that tourists should have to pay for any damage they cause, which itself seems justified. But the new policy only applies to the most popular regions in western Bhutan, and visitors to the underdeveloped eastern region are exempt. It is clear that such a principle alone cannot be the only motivating factor if it does not apply nationwide.
The tourism industry has strongly protested against the move, suspecting – and rightly so – that it will lead to a decline in tourist numbers (a claim the government denies), or at least a slowdown in the rate of increase. But that is exactly the point; ‘high value, low quantity’ is official government policy, and the rapid increase in numbers represents a rise in quantity at the direct expense of value. And this threatened principle is part of the government’s self-appointed raison d’etre: to maximise happiness, not economic growth. The second, tacit aim of the policy is therefore simply to cut numbers; an aim the reduced fee is grossly insufficient to achieve
The more tourists that flock to Bhutan, the more the economy becomes dependent on them as debt is incurred to invest in greater tourist facilities. Such debt can only be paid off in an isolated, landlocked country by increased tourist expenditures, something improved facilities encourage even greater numbers. If the number of tourists rises significantly, it will become economically catastrophic for their numbers not to continue to rise to pay off debt. Bhutan will be stuck in an ecologically destructive vicious cycle which would ultimately make it less attractive to tourists.
If the government wishes to protect the incredible ecology of Bhutan, as it claims, then the sustainable development fee is too low to significantly decrease the number of tourists entering Protective parents and Welsh sex education Meera Navlakha 15 (tokyomurena via Creative Commons) the country, most of whom are extremely wealthy anyway. It is perfectly possible to decrease numbers while giving some special status to Indian visitors, for example by waiving the visa requirement. But ultimately, in a region of rapidly growing prosperity and improved transport to Bhutan, this unique country will be forced to make a choice. Either it makes it more expensive for tourists to enter, or imposes a quota, and thereby does not yield to the short-term interests of the growing tourism industry which would destroy the country’s ecology. Or it abandons its uniqueness, allows a vicious cycle of burgeoning tourism and debt-traps that would destroy its ecology and social fabric. In doing so, Bhutan forgets its happiness-maximisng aims respected across the world and damages its long-term economic and social prospects through environmental degradation and the destruction of the scenery tourists so crave. Pick one or the other; you cannot have it both ways.