Fee Enterprise

Bhutan’s debate over controlling tourism

In early 2020, the Bhutan government imposed a daily Sustainable Development Fee on regional tourists of 1,200 ngultrums— about sixteen dollars. While the government expected that the SDF would bring the volume of tourists down to within the country’s “carrying capacity,” it has met with criticism from the tourism sector. LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA / AFP / Getty Images
30 September, 2021

Couched below a picture of the Himalayan blue poppy, the national flower, the inscription on a pamphlet by the Tourism Council of Bhutan reads, “Happiness is a place.” Often dubbed “the last Shangri-La”—after the fictional place described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon—Bhutan markets itself as a “high-end” and “exclusive” tourism destination. The country’s tourism policy is guided by Gross National Happiness, a multidimensional strategy of development pioneered by Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, that propagates the idea that human development goes beyond economic growth and involves social, environmental, cultural, and governance dimensions.

In just under half a century since Bhutan opened its doors to international tourists, in 1974, the industry has emerged as one of the most important sectors for GNH-driven growth. The country’s unique “high value, low volume” tourism policy emphasises maximising the economic benefits of tourism—through generating increased employment and foreign-currency reserves—while minimising its negative impacts on the indigenous culture and environment by controlling tourist arrivals through a daily-tariff system.

In 2008, however, Bhutan’s tourism policy took a major turn when the newly elected democratic government announced a “high value, low impact” policy instead. Following the policy shift, Bhutan witnessed a significant increase in regional tourist arrivals from countries such as India, Bangladesh and Maldives—the number of regional tourists grew from 16,418 in 2011 to 202,290 in 2018, while tourists from other countries grew from 47,610 in 2011 to only 71,807 in 2018. The aftermath was an increase in local concerns, ranging from the violation of cultural norms and increasing waste to noise pollution, traffic congestion and so on.

An editorial in the Druk Journal’s special issue on tourism noted that the policy shift had been announced “to promote Indian tourists in an Accelerated Bhutan Socio-economic Development Plan,” on the advice of the consultancy firm McKinsey India.