The Pulse

Bhutan’s Tourism Dilemma: Balancing Economy and Sustainability

Recent Features

The Pulse | Economy | South Asia

Bhutan’s Tourism Dilemma: Balancing Economy and Sustainability

Bhutan has long capped tourism to prevent adverse impacts on the environment. With the economy suffering, is it time for a change?

Bhutan’s Tourism Dilemma: Balancing Economy and Sustainability
Credit: Depositphotos

In a significant decision to attract more tourists to its serene land, Bhutan has done away with the mandatory travel insurance for tourists applying for a visa. The Royal Bhutan Government’s move is an important step toward simplifying the visa process. Currently, visitors from countries other than Bangladesh, India, and Maldives require a valid visa to visit Bhutan. 

Bhutan’s tourism sector was severely affected by the pandemic and is yet to recover its pre-COVID-19 visitation numbers. After enduring extensive restrictions during the global health crisis, Bhutan cautiously reopened its borders to foreign visitors in September 2022. However, despite these efforts, the tourism industry continues to grapple with the lingering impacts of the pandemic, struggling to regain its momentum amid ongoing challenges.

A lesser-explored hidden gem on the foothills of the Great Himalayas, Bhutan has a rich history of ancient Buddhist traditions, culture, food, language, and mountain vistas. Often compared with Switzerland in terms of its natural serenity, Bhutan generally misses out on lists of the top tourist destinations in the world but is a good destination for regional visitors. 

Over the years, Thimphu has only interacted with a limited number of countries; it has formal diplomatic ties with only 54 other nations. Bhutan has preferred following the “high-value, low-impact” philosophy of tourism – preserving its unique cultural and religious heritage and following a sustainable path. Bhutan did not open to foreign visitors at all until 1974

As a landlocked country between India and China, Bhutan is strategically important to its neighbors. While China has been vying for strategic influence over Bhutan, India has stood as an “all-weather friend of Bhutan,” contributing to its economy through trade, assistance, and infrastructure development for the last seven decades. 

Considering the long-standing border dispute between China and Bhutan, Thimphu has not formalized diplomatic ties with Beijing despite the Chinese push to do so, which keeps China worried. Bhutan’s diplomatic stance remains steadfast in its commitment to preserving sovereignty and autonomy. 

While diplomatic ties take a back seat, China is attempting to foster more people-to-people ties by sending more visitors to Bhutan every year. From January to September 2023, Bhutan received a record 62,702 guests, with Indians constituting 70 percent of them, followed by China. 

China has used a similar strategic push to build people-to-people ties with neighboring Nepal, another landlocked Himalayan country sharing a border with Tibet and India. Outbound Chinese tourists have become an important economic tool for Beijing to meet its strategic goals in targeted countries. 

On the economic front, Bhutan’s tourism industry contributes just 5 percent of its GDP. With tight control of the country’s tourism policies, Bhutan has often led by example in promoting quality tourism. More than once, Bhutan has tried opening to more tourists and making tourism a robust economic pillar, but it soon switches to a protective mood, fearing adverse impacts on its environment.

In 2022, Bhutan levied a $200 daily “sustainable development fee” (SDF) on anyone entering Bhutan for tourism. This fee was aimed at contributing toward environmental preservation. 

COVID-19 hit the tourism industry hard. For Bhutan, levying a high SDF helped to put life into the industry – especially as tourism is a significant contributor to convertible currency.  Though countries worldwide, especially European nations, have implemented such daily fees, the amounts are generally lower. 

The SDF had to be lowered a year after being imposed, possibly because the fee made Bhutan too expensive to be an attractive tourism destination for foreign visitors. In 2023, Bhutan cut the fee to $100 per day in a bid to boost tourist numbers. 

Bhutan’s cautious approach to the tourism sector is reflected in its other sectors, including industries and investments. With more than 70 percent green cover, Bhutan places an emphasis on maintaining its ecological strengths. 

Though Bhutan’s protective stance is deeply embedded in its “Gross National Happiness,” demographic changes in Bhutan, especially mass migration to Europe, Australia, and the United States, reflect the economic challenges arising from a lack of employment opportunities. The sustainability factor limits industrial scope and caps the tourism sector. 

Therefore, Bhutan requires a balanced approach that exhibits its commitment to protecting the environment and carbon commitments while also addressing the needs and demands of today’s demographics. Although Bhutan’s strides toward sustainability are commendable, the growing trend of outward migration, with a population now standing at around 800,000, necessitates a careful examination of these commitments to mitigate brain drain and uphold demographic equilibrium.