NEW PLAN FOR BHUTAN: Doubles down on sustainability

The Kingdom of Bhutan re-opened its borders to international guests Sept. 23 following the COVID-19 pandemic, at the same time unveiling a future tourism strategy that looks to the past.

The new plan is underpinned by transformations in three key areas: enhancements to its sustainable development policies, infrastructure upgrades, and the elevation of the guest experience.

“Bhutan’s noble policy of high-value, low-volume tourism has existed since we started welcoming guests to our country in 1974. But its intent and spirit were watered down over the years, without us even realizing it,” said Bhutan Prime Minister Dr. Lotay Tshering. “Therefore, as we reset as a nation after this pandemic, and officially open our doors to visitors, we are reminding ourselves about the essence of the policy, the values and merits that have defined us for generations.”

He added, “We must also ensure that we are a high value society, one that is infused with sincerity, integrity and principles, where people must always live in safe communities, among serene environments and derive comfort from the finest facilities. Typically, ‘high value’ is understood as exclusive high-end products and extravagant recreational facilities. But that is not Bhutan.

“And ‘low volume’ doesn’t mean limiting the number of visitors. We will appreciate everyone who visits us to treasure our values, while we also learn as much from them. If that is what you are searching for, there is no limit or restriction.

“The best conduit to realizing our vision are our youth and professionals in the tourism industry. While those working in the tourism sector will represent us at the forefront, the entire nation is the tourism industry, and every Bhutanese a host. The minimum fee we are asking our friends to pay is to be reinvested in ourselves, the place of our meeting, which will be our shared asset for generations…”

Enhancements to sustainable development policies

Bhutan recently announced that it would raise its Sustainable Development Fee (SDF) from US$65 to US$200 p.p., per night, which will go towards projects that support Bhutan’s economic, social, environmental, and cultural development. (Additionally, visitors now have the flexibility to engage service providers directly, or book flights, hotels and tours in Bhutan themselves).

The fees raised will fund national investment in programs that preserve Bhutan’s cultural traditions, as well as sustainability projects, infrastructure upgrades and opportunities for youth – as well as providing free healthcare and education for all.

For instance, some of the SDF funds go towards offsetting the carbon footprint of visitors by planting trees, upskilling workers in the tourism sector, cleaning and maintaining trails, reducing the country’s reliance on fossil fuels and electrifying Bhutan’s transportation sector, among other projects.

As a country that is vulnerable to the effects of climate change (experiencing melting glaciers, floods, and unpredictable weather patterns), Bhutan will also be stepping up its efforts to maintain its status as one of only a handful of carbon-negative countries in the world – in 2021, Bhutan sequestered 9.4 million tons of carbon against its emission capacity of 3.8 million tons.

As a country that is vulnerable to the effects of climate change (experiencing melting glaciers, floods and unpredictable weather patterns), Bhutan will also be stepping up its efforts to maintain its status as one of only a handful of carbon-negative countries in the world – in 2021, Bhutan sequestered 9.4 million tons of carbon against its emission capacity of 3.8 million tons.

“Beyond protecting Bhutan’s natural environment, the SDF will also be directed towards activities that preserve Bhutan’s built and living cultural heritage, including architecture and traditional values, as well as meaningful environmental projects.” said Dorji Dhradhul, Director General of the Tourism Council of Bhutan.

“The goal of our new strategy is to create high-value experiences for guests, in addition to well-paying and professional jobs for our citizens. This is our moment of evolution, and we invite our guests to become our partners in this transformative moment,” he added.

Infrastructure upgrades

In line with this, the government used the period during the COVID-19 shutdown to upgrade roads, trails, temples, and monuments around the country, upgrade public bathroom facilities, organize trash clean-up events, and enhance the standards and certification process for tourism service providers (such as hotels, guides, tour operators and drivers). Employees across the tourism industry were required to participate in upskilling programs to focus on enhancing service quality.

Elevation of the guest experience

“We know that our new SDF brings with it a certain expectation when it comes to standards of quality and service, so we are committed to enhancing the guest experience – whether that is through the quality of services received, the cleanliness and accessibility of our infrastructure, by limiting the number of cars on our roads, or by limiting the number of people who visit our sacred site,” explained Dr. Tandi Dorji, the Minister of Foreign Affairs. “By doing so, we protect the experience for visitors to Bhutan, as we must be able to provide authentic experiences supported by world-class services and personal care.

“We also plan to work with our tourism partners to continue to upgrade the itineraries that guests can experience in our country – to help showcase the very best that Bhutan has to offer. We hope that visitors to Bhutan will notice and welcome these changes, and we very much look forward to welcoming all guests to Bhutan.”

First published at Travel Industry Today