Bhutan is on the move

The world’s first carbon-negative country absorbs more CO2 than it burns

The Druk Air fleet at home in Paro airport

Our flight arrived 45 minutes early. "Only in Bhutan, never in Nepal," grinned a retired army general shouldering his golf clubs and duty free at Kathmandu airport, heading for a weekend on the golf course.

On landing in the unique traditional Paro airport, the mountain air fizzed and buzzed with excited tourists snapping selfies and Bhutanese rejoicing on return. Having admired the white Himalayan giants from afar, passengers shared palpable relief at the safe descent with farmhouses, fields and rocky crags flashing by just beyond our wingtips.

The Druk Air dragons coil confidently on the orange yellow aircraft tails, and helpful women in colourful kira stamp us into the country from behind fragrant wood desks. Outside, men dressed in gho and knee socks take trouble to assist those caught out by the early arrival to link up with their drivers. Ah yes, the familiar magic of Bhutan is already weaving its spell.

I have been here many times, but am still hopelessly susceptible to the enchantment. When Bhutan first opened to tourism in 1974 it was not long before I had a chance to visit with our client, Lindblad Travel. The Swedish visionary entrepreneur, Lars-Eric Lindblad, represented Bhutan from a corner of his New York office draped in prayer flags and woven cloth, and first advised His then-Majesty on the ‘high value, low volume’ model of tourism.

Although I only got to Paro and Thimphu on that first visit, from the tortuous roads we spotted otters playing on the riverbanks, and I was captivated by the royal pageantry, ubiquitous archery, claret-clad monks and intense potency of the fortress dzong.

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I have helped with tourism, movies and events in Bhutan on a number of occasions. In 1992, Bernardo Bertolucci strutted the stone flagged courtyards of the massive Paro Dzong, directing with flair and flailing arms the feature film Little Buddha, more ambitious and elaborate than ever again attempted in that holy precinct.

Special permissions were needed from the royal government for such an unusual invasion, and my quest graduated from officials in the rows of humble wooden sheds that housed the civil service, to the carpeted offices and corner stairways in the main seat of government in Thimphu, the Tashichho Dzong 'fortress of the glorious religion'.

Ravens called and pigeons circled as we negotiated the guards and stepped through the huge doorways into the grey stone precincts, our Bhutanese escorts adjusting their raw silk sashes of formal respect. Sloping walls glowered above us to the painted eaves and massive roofs, and the quarters of the ruling monarch were indicated to us with due deference through the next courtyard. When the rare permission was granted, with typical charm the Foreign Minister hosted us to a celebratory dinner, sitting on carpeted benches and eating red rice, cheese and chillies off small carved tables.

A decade later we were back to prepare a national ecotourism strategy, consulting for the tourism authority under the unforgiving eye and dishevelled goh of veteran Thuji Nadik, never one to suffer fools. With our WWF clients we trekked into the back blocks of Bumthang, through flowering rhododendron forests, remote palace strongholds and rural villages, staying in richly decorated houses with sparse impoverished interiors.

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We happened to be in Thimphu on 9/11, watching the New York drama unfold on a flickering screen in our favourite Yeedzin Guesthouse. The King called every American in the country to personally condole them and the monk body dedicated days of prayers to those lost in the Twin Towers. By a twist of fate, I stayed in that same guesthouse room last month, little changed since 2001, with familiar erratic service, creaking wood floors and wobbly taps, but now dwarfed by international brand hotels -- a six-lane bypass runs alongside Thimphu’s old archery ground.

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For Thuji and his team we returned several times with the ADB, working on Buddhist circuits and ecotourism. Driving to Mongar and Trashigang in the far east with our Nepali aviation colleagues, we inspected existing and proposed airports, trekking up hilltops to assess feasibility and enjoy the flowers, forest and mountain scenery.

Near Trongsa we were rewarded with golden langurs leisurely crossing the road and, in the marshy valley of Phobjica, the sacred black-necked cranes honoured us with their elegant disdain. Communications in those days were so difficult that the Civil Aviation director in Paro was surprised when we reported that Yonphula airstrip, close to the Arunachal Pradesh border, had been recently resurfaced.

During a job with the Norwegians, checking out tourism and environmental implications of a proposed hydropower master plan, we indulged in fly-fishing for trout in the pristine rivers. Strictly catch and release, the rules permit fishing only when out of eye-sight of any religious monument, dzong, chorten or stupa. One of Bhutan’s less likely exports is hand-tied flies for the world’s recreational fly-fishers.

Bhutan is the first country in the world to become carbon negative: its forests absorb more carbon than its inhabitants burn. But although much admired as an astute national policy, Bhutan’s uniquely-managed, pre-paid tourism with its tiny population of some 800,000 people and gross national happiness brand is hard, probably impossible, to replicate elsewhere. Amongst our recommendations was to evolve the tourism strategy to ‘high value, low impact’, using financial mechanisms to control visitors at sustainable levels, nurturing the cultural ‘Bhutan style’ for visitors. And to find ways that more tourism benefits can stick in the countryside, something at which Nepal has been far more successful.

Bhutan these days is on the move. Lofty electricity pylons march across the country, competing with the hosts of fluttering prayer flags that clamber up the steep ridges above the valley floors. Construction sites have come to characterise the creeping city perimeters of Paro and Thimphu as Bhutanese crowd in from the countryside, and pressure from Indian tourists threatens Bhutan’s grip on its carefully crafted tourism objectives.

New hotels and apartment blocks faithfully reflect the carved and painted vernacular architecture of this last Himalayan eyrie, but new roads scar the hillsides and laden trucks grind their way up from India. The swarm of smart imported SUVs have to watch out for horses and mules grazing unfettered along the roadside, avoid the dogs supine in the sunshine, and steer around cows sleeping on the warm tarmac.

But some things never change in this blessed kingdom. They still proudly wear their glamorous national garb, blithely manage their dependence on India, ignore the thorny issue of refugees, and zealously guard their traditions, navigating the cultural clash of ancient and modern. The Bhutanese must be the only nation on earth who so genuinely and universally adore and revere their royal family. Inspirational they are too, and I for one am happy to be bewitched by Bhutan.

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Lisa Choegyal