Bhutan: the ticking time-bomb in travel?

There is always something very satisfying about finding a hidden gem, no matter what that may be. In the case of travel, there is nothing worse than arriving somewhere to find hordes of people have beat you to it, hence, one tries to beat the crowds. 

Enter, Bhutan: the hidden gem of Asia, which boasts being the first carbon negative country in the world, and is on track to becoming the first entirely organic nation. It is quite the trailblazer in many ways, but Bhutan also has a unique tourist policy which has been developed with the intention of preservation. 

Travelling in Bhutan costs $250USD per day for a visa, which is a lot. $65 of this fee goes to the government as a Sustainable Development Fee, in order to contribute to environmental maintenance, education and more, so that eases the pain a little I guess. The purpose of this, however, begins to transcend the idea of sustainability. Such a fee naturally reduces the numbers visiting the country, acting as a deterrence. 

In my humble opinion, this is a very smart idea. Too much tourism is a very real and increasing issue, as demonstrated in neighbouring Nepal, and also Croatia, which has suffered in recent years due to the ‘Game of Thrones Effect’, a phenomenon coined to detail the sudden influx of tourism that the place cannot cope with, usually because of media exposure. Of course, having watched this happen to Nepal somewhat, and having the natural beauty it does, it is easy to see why the government are trying to preserve this as best as possible.

Lonely Planet, in their ‘Best in Travel 2020’ yearly publication, placed Bhutan at the top of the Best Countries list, and I have some strong opinions. Granted, it claimed the top spot for genuine reasons. It is beautiful. The pictures I have seen make the place seem so idyllic, with ornate temples and rolling, emerald green hills in the background. I can’t deny it, I want to go. Lonely Planet emphasised in their video about Bhutan that trailers are free from litter, and, ‘its natural beauty and reverence remain protected’ by the daily fee. 

However, I do not agree that its place at the top of this list is beneficial at all. In fact, I argue this is damaging. The video states that because of the fee, ‘it won’t get anymore crowded’, which for the time being may be true, but this will not last. Heavy promotion from one of the most reputable and widely known travel companies is going to put it on consumers radars, regardless of the price tag. 

If it comes so highly recommended, then surely it is worth saving up for? The policies Bhutan have enacted are accompanied by the fact that it is a relatively unknown place anyway, so removing one of those actualities makes the other more redundant. More to the point, the fact that it is being promoted as naturally preserved and untouched makes it more desirable, which encourages people to flock to the area and undo the beauty they are there to witness. I do not think that the daily fee is going to deter people for long enough, especially if exposure is going to pick up. 

This would then begin the downward spiral of all the tourism issues that are currently being avoided becoming realities. Western influence may start to infringe on ancient Buddhist culture, litter will increase, and pollution most likely will be a problem as a result. 

I am not going to encourage you to visit Bhutan, you have to decide that for yourself, and in doing so, work out your priorities: tourism or preservation? It is evident to me that Bhutan cannot have both.

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Sam Hewitson

Travel Editor - 2019/20

Editor-In-Chief - 2020/21

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December 2021
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