Until recently, there were hardly any mentions of Bhutan in the media. No surprises there – Bhutan is a simple, peace-loving nation of farmers wedged in between India and China that just wants to be left alone in their path towards a sustainable and happy future – not the kind of sensationalist story media outlets tend to go for.
The size of Switzerland and with a population of just over 1 million, Bhutan is the bastion of Vajaryana Buddhism, one of the most profound schools of teachings in the Buddhist world, which encourages practitioners to attain pure enlightenment in a single lifetime. The main goal of a Vajaryana devotee is happiness. As such, it is the responsibility of the Monarch of the country and the Buddhist priesthood to provide an environment that ensures and develops people´s happiness.
Can you imagine that? Probably not, particularly if you come from a Southern European country, like me.
Two ¨newsworthy tems¨ have recently made it to the news, though.
Bhutan is already called the poster child of sustainable development. Having refused to acknowledge and accept GDP as the only measure of progress for decades, Bhutan has championed a new, holistic approach to development – one which measures prosperity through the principles of gross national happiness (GNH) and the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and natural environment.
Until recently, most countries just had a good laugh at this proposal. But these days, in view of the obvious collapsing financial systems, rapid environmental degradation, increasing inequality, corruption, wars and general destruction of our planet… Bhutan´s approach is starting to make a lot more sense to most.
So when the world leaders met in Doha last November, Bhutan´s blatant warning caused a few spines to shudder: the world is on an environmental and economical suicide path and unless a holistic approach to development is put in place, one that takes the welfare of its population and its environment seriously, the future for us is quite gloomy.
These words finally caused leaders to react and as we speak, a UN panel is considering ways to replicate Bhutan’s GNH model across the globe. Bhutan has proven that this simple approach works – in the ast 20 years the kingdom has doubled life expectancy, enrolled almost 100% of its children in primary school and overhauled its infrastructure.
The royal family have guided the country into a democracy and voluntarily relinquished their monarchical role to a more ceremonial one so that the people of the country could aspire to govern as well. They are directly involved in ensuring the people of Bhutan are happy and well cared for, their simplicity being quite exemplary. They often travel to the remote regions to find out what are the people´s needs, setting up foundations to support those with specific problems.
Since the end of 2009, Bhutan has also been trialling a new approach to education. Its Green Schools for Green Bhutan program is part of the country’s attempt to integrate principles of its revolutionary GNH model into all areas of public policy. Alongside maths and science, children are taught basic agricultural techniques and environmental protection. A new national waste management program ensures that every piece of material used at the school is recycled. The infusion of GNH into education has also meant daily meditation sessions and soothing traditional music replacing the sound of the school bell.
Bhutan is also being held up as an example of a developing country that has put environmental conservation and sustainability at the heart of its political agenda. Having pledged to remain carbon neutral and to ensure that at least 60% of its landmass will remain under forest cover, Bhutan has banned export logging and has even implemented a monthly pedestrian day that bans all private vehicles from its roads.
Only recently, the Buddhist Kingdom has reported is putting in place the Bhutan Organic Certification System (BOCS) in order to ensure that vegetables are 100 percent organic. Authorities are planning on banning the sales of pesticides and herbicides and relying on its own animals and farm waste for fertilisers. Smallholders are trying to develop new techniques to grow more produce like SRI or ”Sustainable root intensification”, which carefully regulates the amount of water that crops need and the age at which seedlings are planted out. They also plan to increase the amount of irrigated land and use traditional varieties of crops which do not require inputs and have pest resistance.
“We believe you cannot have a prosperous nation in the long run that does not conserve its natural environment or take care of the wellbeing of its people, which is being borne out by what is happening to the outside world”, says Thakur Singh Powdyel, Bhutan’s minister of education, who has become one of the most eloquent spokespeople for GNH.
But plans are plans and no matter how well-meaning, very often they´ll differ substantially from the reality farmers face. And so a few exceptionally warm years and erratic weather has recently left many farmers doubtful they can do without chemicals. In Paro, a largely farming district in south-west Bhutan, farmers are already struggling to grow enough to feed their families and local government officials say they are having to distribute fertiliser and pesticides in larger quantities to help people grow more.
“Going organic will take time,” said agriculture and forests minister Pema Gyamtsho. “We have set no deadline. We cannot do it tomorrow. Instead we will achieve it region by region and crop by crop.”
Let´s remember that this Himalayan kingdom had no paved roads until the 1960s, was off-limits to foreigners until 1974, and launched television only in 1999. To secure this purity, the Government of Bhutan has restricted the entry of tourists and imposed a minimum daily package for tourists planning to travel there. This is how it works:
All travel must be booked through a Bhutanese tour operator or international partner. The minimum daily package for tourists travelling in a group of 3 persons or more is as follows:
USD $200 per person per night for the months of January, February, June, July, August, and December.
USD $250 per person per night for the months of March, April, May, September, October, and November.
These rates are applicable per tourist per night in Bhutan and include:
- A minimum of 3 star accommodation (4 & 5 star may require an additional premium).
- All meals
- A licensed Bhutanese tour guide for the extent of your stay
- All internal transport (excluding internal flights)
- Camping equipment and haulage for trekking tours
- All internal taxes and charges
- A sustainable tourism Royalty of $65. This Royalty goes towards free education, free healthcare, poverty alleviation, along with the building of infrastructure.
Entering the country was difficult prior to its opening the doors to the outside world, as it was only accessible by foot from two main entry points: the Northern route was through Tibet, crossing high mountain passes that were inaccessible throughout the winters and the Southern route through the plains of Assam and West Bengal. The high, frozen passes in the North and the dense, jungles in the South made it extremely difficult to enter the country.
The country is now much more accessible and there are now a network roads entering and traversing the country, as well as one international and multiple domestic airports.
Today the main roads entering the country are through Phuentsholing in the south, linking Bhutan with the Indian plains of West Bengal, through the border towns of Gelephu, in the central region and Samdrup Jongkhar, in the east, that link with the Indian state of Assam.
If you travel by air you will land in the Paro International Airport, situated at a height of 2,225 m (7300 ft) above sea level. Currently, Drukair is the only airline operating flights into and around the country from Bangkok, Delhi, Kolkata, Bodh Gaya, Guwahati, Dacca, Kathmandu and Singapore.
There are several travel agencies and adventure travel companies that specialise in Bhutan, and can help you organise your tickets on Druk Air and remove all the hassles of the booking process.
In Australia: Peregrine Adventures, World Expeditions
In Germany Hauser Exkursionen
In Switzerland Horizons Nouveaux
In the UK: Abercombie & Kent,Exodus, Explore Worldwide,Himalayan Kingdoms
For more information on how to reach Bhutan and the various requirements expected of travellers, visit Tourism Bhutan´s site.
As inconvenient and costly as it may seem to you and me, it makes sense to protect this pristine land and ensure that its children continue having a safe and happy environment to boast about in years to come.