Best known for measuring national development with its Gross National Happiness Index, Bhutan now wants happy tourists to play a larger role in national development. Over the past four decades tourism has followed a policy of 'high value, low volume' visitors. A daily tariff is set at $250 for each traveller, which is intended to limit the number of tourists but still attract significant foreign exchange.
"We don't want a lot of people at one go," explains Tshering Tobgay, who owns a resort in the Paro Valley, "the policy has avoided the excesses of mass tourism. This is a small country, we don't want a lot of tourism to come in and spoil our culture and heritage like in other countries."
Tourism contributes more than US$2 million in annual revenue and the government hopes to boost arrivals to 100,000 by 2013. The tourism industry is second only to hydroelectricity sales to India as a foreign exchange earner.
Kesang Wangdi, director general of Bhutan's Tourism Council, says tourism will play a greater role in Bhutan's development in the future. "It is one of our key priorities because of its potential to contribute to more equitable socio-economic development in terms of alleviation of poverty and employment generation," says Wangdi.
Although Bhutan's GDP is among the highest in South Asia, one-third of the population is poor. Wangdi says that tourism can support local community development by improving the lives of people in the countryside.
Bhutan's latest tourist marketing slogan is 'Happiness Is a Place'. The capital, Thimphu, and Paro are the most important centres for tourism, with the cliff-side Tiger's Nest monastery overlooking the Paro valley a must-see destination.
"There is almost a 'Bhutan myth' that is as much perception as it is reality," says Rick Antonson, president of Tourism Vancouver. "A significant challenge for Bhutan will be the pressure from mainstream tourism investors that could tarnish its reputation."
With tourism numbers increasing, national carrier Druk Air recently purchased an additional aircraft, adding to its fleet of six. The airline has also launched domestic services, but new infrastructure will be needed to meet rising demands, says resort manager Julie Beattie.
"There's a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built to support 100,000 coming in. They have to start by upgrading airport facilities, then hotels and then other facilities," she says, adding that infrastructure must be spread out evenly across the country.
Already worrying signs are emerging of tourism's intrusion into Bhutan's pristine environment, which has 72 percent under forest cover.
"Many tourists told us that if we don't take care of the trash on the trekking routes or the waste in the cities they won't spend $250 a day to see this rubbish," say Bhutan's Economics Minister Lyonpo Khandu Wangchuk. "So the progress of our tourism industry depends on how well we manage to do the things."
Looking over the snow-capped mountains of Che Li La Pass, Bhutan Tourism Council guide Phuntsho Gyeltshen, says that preserving Bhutan's culture is vital to the industry's future.
"When people hear about Bhutan they relate to high mountains, the culture and tradition," he says as prayer flags flutter noisily nearby, "we must preserve it."
Once is enough ?
Being a third world nation can no longer be an excuse to be third rate where tourism is concerned