Damcho Rinzin, the head of the tourism promotion division at the Tourism Council of Bhutan // © 2017 Damcho Rinzin
Feature image (above): Tiger's Nest Monastery is one of Bhutan's most spectacular attractions. // © 2017 Stefan Krasowski
With its impressive “dzong” fortresses, a mystical Shangri-la-esque lushness and absurdly beautiful temples set on lofty perches, Bhutan is home to some of Asia’s most incredible sights and natural landscapes. And in 2016, it became the world’s first carbon negative country in the world, thanks in large part to the government’s attention to the country’s Gross National Happiness index and its decision to put that above economic growth and profit.
The small country in the High Himalayas is a utopian destination for mindful, eco-friendly and low-impact travelers, as well as for those who aspire to be that way. But it’s not your typical book-and-go destination — to preserve the country’s “high value, low impact” tourism policy, certain arrangements need to be made prior to a visit.
We sat down with Damcho Rinzin, head of the tourism promotion division at the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), to discuss the ways in which travelers can organize a trip to the destination.
How is the tourism landscape in Bhutan evolving right now?
Tourism in Bhutan has huge potential. There are increasing numbers of tour operators and guides, many new hotels are being built, and arrival numbers continue to grow. We started with 287 tourists in 1974, and now we have reached 20,9570 visitors annually.
What are the tourism challenges the country is currently facing?
Seasonality and regional spread have always been challenges because of the landscape and the inadequate tourism infrastructure. We have most tourists coming in the spring and autumn seasons, and most of them stay in the western part of Bhutan, where the international airport is located.
Many travelers also have false information about Bhutan’s tourism. They think Bhutan limits the number of visitors in a year; it is expensive to visit Bhutan; and it’s very hard to obtain a visa. I would like to clarify that Bhutan does not limit the number of visitors in a year, nor is it expensive or hard to obtain a visa. The only thing that a traveler must purchase is a prepaid tour at a minimum daily package rate that is set by the government.
How Bhutan is different from other top Asian destinations, and what makes it appealing to the U.S. market?
Bhutan is emerging as one of the top sustainable destinations in the world because of what it has to offer tourists and the way the tourism system is structured. Tourism is guided by the philosophy that a trip should be “high value, low impact.” This means Bhutan aspires and strives to attract only mindful and responsible visitors. The idea that happiness has been given more focus by the government than profit is also one of the major unique selling points of Bhutan.
What should first time-travelers know before visiting?
The government is committed to building a sustainable tourism industry that is not only financially viable but also limits the negative cultural and environmental impacts commonly associated with mass-market tourism. By establishing “high value, low impact” tourism, Bhutan seeks to ensure that it attracts only the most discerning visitors with a deep respect for the country’s cultural values, traditions and the natural environment.
Unlike with visiting other countries, tourists must use a licensed Bhutanese tour operator or their counterparts abroad to plan and arrange their trip to Bhutan. For this, visitors must pay the government-mandated minimum daily package rate, which is all-inclusive. That includes accommodation in a minimum three-star hotel, food, a professional guide, comfortable ground transport and a sustainable development fee of $65. The sustainable development fee goes toward free education, health care and other social-development activities in Bhutan.
What type of accommodations should Western travelers expect?
A wide variety of accommodations are available and range from luxurious five-star hotels to cozy little home stays in traditional Bhutanese homes and settings. All these accommodation facilities are registered and accredited by the government to host tourists.
What are some of the best sights and attractions that travelers should see?
While there are many places guests can visit, the following few are iconic and the most popular: Paro Taktshang, which is popularly known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery; Buddha Point; Punakha Dzong; Phobjikha Valley; Bumthang Valley; and Omba Ney.
Are there any exciting projects that the tourism board is currently working on?
TCB has developed the Circuit Development Plan for the six eastern districts, and this will offer interesting packages and experiences for tourists. Additionally, we are in the final stages of developing the Manas Tourism Plan, under which Royal Manas National Park will offer one of the best wildlife experiences, along with wonderful community experiences.