I recently fulfilled a dream of 35+ years – to visit the Kingdom of Bhutan where its enlightened, conscious leader and 4th King had bravely pioneered the concept of “Gross National Happiness.” I was given the privilege of giving the opening keynote at PATA’s conference on Adventure Travel and Responsible Tourism – the speech is on slide share here.

As readers of this blog know, Conscious Travel is an embryonic, emerging concept still taking form. We are encouraging debate on the qualities and characteristics of Conscious Hosts who can attract Conscious Travelers – those visitors who are awake and aware of their impact on the destination and who are committed to maximizing net benefits to it. So the concept of what makes for a “Conscious Travel Destination” is still in its formative stages. (As it develops it will support and integrate the principles underlying responsible, sustainable, geo, eco, fair, good tourism). 

Even though Bhutan’s tourism economy is very young, it shines as a beacon of hope exemplifying what a Conscious Travel Destination could be and here’s why:


1. Well-being. In Bhutan, tourism is recognized as one means towards achieving and sustaining the well-being of its citizens. As a consequence, tourism is not just about growing GDP, or increasing volume. All policies with respect to its development are viewed through the lens of 72 Gross National Happiness Indicators based on the four pillars of GNH (ecological balance; cultural vitality, sustainable, equitable economy and good governance). As Bhutan is still listed as one of the Less Developed Countries of the world, with an estimated 23% of its population living below the poverty line, it needs to develop its economy in order to improve its well-being and tourism is the fourth contributor to GDP. Despite these economic pressures, Bhutan is committed to pacing the growth of tourism to ensure that it doesn’t diminish cultural or environmental values.

Bhutan Happiness is a Place2. Place: The Bhutanese people and their leaders intrinsically recognize that Bhutan (like any other country, or region) is unique and its value lies in its location, geology, geography, landscape, history and living culture. Because they value themselves and the place they call home, they have never discounted its value and taken sensible steps to ensure that tourism is developed at a pace that doesn’t undermine its culture. 

Up until the early 1990s, a tourist quota was imposed in addition to a minimum daily tariff. All visitors are required to plan their travel with the assistance of a Bhutanese tour operator who arranges and supplies accommodation, food, transportation and guiding services for a minimum daily fee of US$250. Of this fee, a $65 royalty is paid directly to the Government to fund health and education. Every visitor has personal access to a trained, educated, English speaking guide whose intent and purpose is to ensure that the visitor experience is transformative. 

The daily tariff ( US$250 per day) has not only controlled the pace of growth but has shown visitors how their spending directly affects the quality of life experienced by their hosts. 

Bhutan’s recognition of the “power of place” and its commitment to expressing its unique spirit is perfectly reflected in their choice of branding “Bhutan – Happiness is a Place” – a tagline which is a truthful distillation of what Bhutan is all about and what the country means to its people.

3. Limits: Thanks to their love of their land and the spiritual values that shape their mindset and actions, the Bhutanese understand and respect the concept of limits. Built into their values is the notion of sufficiency, fairness and service. The Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lyonchhoen Jigmi Y. Thinley, defines happiness in the context of GNH as follows:

“We know that true abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer, and comes only from serving others, and living in harmony with nature.”

No sane person would deny the right of the Bhutanese to lift their people out of poverty and increase the quality of their lives. Nor do westerners like me have any right to impose our nostalgia and grief at the loss of so much cultural diversity elsewhere in the world on the inhabitants of this little country. But the healthy sense of self worth exhibited by the Bhutanese suggest to me that this is a living, dynamic culture capable of balancing the need to both preserve, conserve and adapt.

Lonely Planet Map of Bhutan

Lonely Planet’s Map of Bhutan

Located in between two of the most populous, fastest growing economies of the world (India and China), it would be tempting to open the gates and maximize visitor volume. Instead, Bhutan has increased the minimum daily tariff (from US$200 to US$250) and set itself a modest growth target of 100,000 visitors by 2015. Its first priority is to ensure that the existing, active 320 Bhutanese tour operators and 120 accommodation suppliers are operating healthy sustainable businesses and contributing to the vitality of its communities.
4. Value: Bhutan tries to give its guests good value while ensuring that tourism generates net value to its citizenry. The minimum daily tariff that all operators must adhere to makes it difficult, if not impossible, for price discounting to be used to gain market share. Instead, the inbound tour operators and suppliers of accommodation, transport and guiding services, must compete on the basis of service quality. Customer satisfaction, as expressed to the inbound tour operator, provides the “feedback loop” which determines which suppliers will be used the next time.
5. Local & Authentic: Visitors to Bhutan can be assured that their visit benefits locals as the inbound airline, all accommodation, and all inbound tour operations are locally owned and managed. Most of the food served is locally grown and prepared. (Bhutan intends and is working hard to ensure that its agricultural sector is 100% organic). Its attractions are primarily natural sites (trekking & wildlife viewing) and cultural/spiritual sites (monasteries, fortresses; memorials) or activities (Festivals) that are locally funded and managed. Bhutan is a living culture that invests in developing the artistic skills of its young.
6. A Place That Cares: for such a young country (Bhutan only switched from a theocracy to modern, parliamentary democracy in 2008), it demonstrates a remarkable maturity that reflects its cultural/spiritual values of service, compassion, personal responsibility and caring. Three examples support this observation.

The Host as Change Agent.

There is growing recognition of the role that business can and must play in achieving well-being. Karma Tshiteem, Secretary of the GNH Commission highlighted at a recent ‘Happiness & Economic Development’ conference that

“It is an urgent need that we engage the profit-driven business sector, and that we make the GNH discussion relevant to this sector. Otherwise, we’ll have a very powerful force working against us.”

The tourism community in Bhutan has not been slow to respond. At the time of Karma Tshiteem’s statement, two of Bhutan’s more innovative tourism companies, Yanpghel Adventure Travel and Hotel Zhiwa Ling, had already embarked on a GNH in Business project. This program:

Lobby of Zhiwa Ling Hotel

Lobby of the Zhiwa Ling Hotel

“offers a tool to bring sane and responsible behaviors into the business sector, which are driven by a genuine intention among the leadership of a business. A GNH Business is nothing less than a powerful change agent within its community with a genuine commitment to serve others…These companies are able to answer clearly and confidently three key questions: 1) What is enough profit for the owners and/or shareholders?; 2) What do we do with the rest?; and 3) How do we spend the rest to increase genuine happiness among our stakeholders?”………

“incorporates everything that a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) program would do, plus two important additional components. Firstly, a GNH business not only requires a company to do things better in its relationships with external and internal stakeholders, with their environment and communities – it also requires each individual within a business to become a more evolved human being that can experience and share true and lasting happiness. This means that the key element of GNH that is not normally addressed in CSR programs is a recognition that a transformation is required on an individual level by all the people that make up a business starting from the owners/shareholders to management and general staff.”

The work undertaken by Zhiwa Ling and Yangphel is truly inspiring – fortunately they have also documented their experience in an excellent case study available here.

An Overhaul of the Education System and Focus on Youth
Bhutan is in the third year of a country wide program designed to completely overhaul its education system to ensure the principles and values of community-wide wellbeing i.e., “gross national happiness” are applied. After another international conference that pulled together leading thinkers and practitioners in the field of education, Bhutan defined the kind of citizen they needed as being able to:

• See clearly the interconnected nature of reality
• Understand the full benefits and costs of their actions
• Care deeply for others and their natural world.

When asked in an interview what kind of education he wanted to see ten years later, the Prime Minister responded:

“an education system that is quite different from the conventional factory where specific knowledge and skills are imported to turn out economic animals, thinking only of themselves and working only for themselves. …It would produce graduates who are human beings, that give importance to relationships; students who are eco-literate, analytical in the way they approach issues; people who know their needs and are neither excessive or greedy; who recognize that success is not about the acquisition of wealth but a state of being that comes from giving happiness and well-being to others.”

Since it is the graduates of this education system who will be running Bhutan’s tourism economy in the future, I have every confidence that the country will sustain its position as first Conscious Travel Destination!!

Environmental Care
Bhutan is also committed to maintaining the pristine nature of its natural habitat through careful forestry practices (a permit has to be obtained to cut down a tree and 8 have to be planted in the place of one); 70% of the land area is untouched; and all food production will be organic.

7. Pull not Push: the hallmark of a Conscious Travel Destination is its ability to attract the right customer – the visitor whose values match those of the host. Bhutan isn’t for everybody. Bhutan is for the visitor seeking a unique, and some would say, exotic experience of a vibrant culture expressed in a pristine setting. The Bhutanese appear very comfortable in their own skins; they know who they are and what they value and this comes through in all the media now available to express that identity.

For a country that only got TV and the Internet in 2006, its tourism operators are proving remarkably competent and gifted in digital marketing. 

Because an understanding that all sentient beings are connected and interdependent is an integral to Bhutanese philosophy, the concept of social business or social marketing comes naturally. The Bhutanese tourism community has both the mindset and the social intelligence to operate as a social business and I see no reason why they won’t become leaders in this aspect of tourism management as well.

This post is not meant to imply that all is perfect in Bhutan. The moniker “Shangri-La” will likely do more harm than good. Like many developing countries its population is rising faster than the economy can expand to develop sufficient jobs and unemployment rates among the young are on the increase. Young people are leaving the remote rural villages for the main centre Thimphu leaving the villages and agricultural production to an aging population. The visa/ tariff requirement does not apply to Indian nationals and Indian tour operators are keen to exploit destinations that would appeal to its growing middle class. Even though licenses are required to open a hotel or operate an inbound tour business, their number and capacity currently exceeds current demand so these operations are operating at low levels of occupancy and efficiency. The challenge will be to resist pressure to lower the tariff (institutionalized discounting) or allow construction of attractions and facilities not in keeping with the unique essence of the place.

Given these characteristics, Bhutan is a perfect destination for many “conscious travelers” many of whom are more likely to discover the country through stories about its pursuit of Gross National Happiness than through the traditional wholesaler/retailer channels.

As many of my readers are likely Conscious Travellers, I can thoroughly recommend a vist. So to plan your trip here are some places to start:

Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators

Bhutan Tourism Council

Zhiwa Ling Hotel, Paro

Drukair – the national airline

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