Monday, 18 June 2012

PATA Adventure and Responsible Tourism Conference, Paro, Bhutan February 2012

The Tigers Nest monastery, Paro Valley
Bhutan, the land of the Thunder Dragon.  Thanks to PATA, The Pacific Asia Travel Association and the Tourism Council of Bhutan, I was able to attend the Kingdom's first international Responsible Tourism Conference in February 2012.  To many Bhutan has almost mythical status as both a tourism and spiritual destination.

From a tourism industry perspective, it is one of the few countries in the world that does not seek to massively increase its tourism industry, and one that actively manages most of its tourism through a rigorously enforced "minimum daily spend", and thorough per-organization of all visits.

My hotel - the Ugyen Phendeyling
Tourists, with the exception of Indian, Bangladeshi, Maldivian and Sri Lankan must pre-organize their visit with an approved and registered Bhutanese operator and pay a minimum spend of $250 per day, per person ($280 if in a group of four or less), making budget travel virtually impossible.

The fee is broken into two components, a $65 royalty that goes directly to healthcare projects, the remainder being used for trips... you pay the same whether in a tent or up to 3 star hotel... but you can upgrade to a variety of higher star accommodations, and of course pay significantly more.
Capped Langurs by the Tiger's Nest
Currently Bhutan receives around 33,000 fee paying tourists, with another 11,000 or so mostly Indian visitors.  The full fee includes all transport and is fully guided.  As conference guests we were except from the fee, which also gave us the relatively unusual benefit of being free to do what we wanted without a guide, on top of conference activities and tours.  Just walking around the valley, it was clear that few locals had met with any foreigners before, even in Paro valley, where most tourists will visit at least once.  Something amazing being invited into someone's house who's never met a foreigner before for tea!
Prayer flags are ubiquitous in Bhutan
So what is Bhutan like?  In short, amazing.  Visiting in February where the nights reach minus 15 but with daytime temperatures of plus 15 and stunning blue skies, visible wildlife and a strong Bhutanese culture and identity, it is different.  People are well educated and support their cultural identities and want to maintain this, on the whole.  Pristine environment, windy roads, monasteries, prayer flags, shrines, and some of the most distinctive food ever... the main staple is the chilli pepper, spiced up with even more spicy chillies, served with melted cheese and red rice.  Its the hottest food by far I've ever tasted.
The conference itself was different, probably because of location, and that Bhutan is considered a specialist market.  The opening was by Anna Pollok, a leader in promoting industry wide responsible tourism, and not just a marketable niche product.
With the guides in Thimphu
Is Bhutan worth the fee?  Well, that depends whether you've the money or not!  But one thing's certain, they won't be scrapping it in the foreseeable future.  

For Bhutan, Gross National Happiness is the economic system that governs the country's development, it will be interesting to see if this model is exported to other countries in the future and indeed can be maintained in Bhutan long term.  For more pictures click here

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