Geographical Notes: Bhutan: why travellers become tourists

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The Independent Culture
TRAVELLERS OFTEN feel the need to distinguish themselves from mere tourists. Tourists go on group tours, following fixed itineraries, on buses, with guides, to overpriced destinations. Travel-lers go on journeys, making their way alone, with backpack, journal and guidebook, to the ends of the earth. Tourists go to the beach, travellers seek out remote, untouched places like Bhutan.

In Bhutan, however, this dichotomy breaks down. Government regulations require travellers to visit in the manner of tourists - through a travel agency, with a group, led by a licensed guide, following an itinerary, usually on a bus. Travellers pay US $240 a day for the privilege of being tourists in this small Buddhist kingdom at the eastern end of the Hima- layas. The high fees and travel restrictions serve to limit the number of visitors, which is, of course, exactly what Royal Government of Bhutan intends. By carefully regulating tourism, the country hopes to avoid the cultural erosion and environmental devastation tourism has brought to some of its neighbours.

The people who visit Bhutan would probably describe themselves as travellers: culturally sensitive, interested in the country's history and religion and natural environment. Do they mind becoming mere tourists in Bhutan, herded through museum, shop and fortress, from morning bed-tea to bedtime? Probably not. Most realise that what they have come to see would quickly disappear if multitudes of visitors were allowed to traipse, unrestricted, through it.

But no one travels in a vacuum, and it is naive to think that five or six thousand tourists can pass through Bhutan year after year without having some negative impact. Thoughtless generosity can have the most long-lasting consequences. Ten years ago, no one could have imagined the increasingly common spectacle of Bhutanese children trailing a tour group asking for "one photo, one pen, one money".

Tourism has also brought the usual inflated prices for local goods and services, as well as unrealistic expectations. When young men leave their villages to find work as tour guides in the capital Thimphu, the knowledge that their chances are slim is over-ridden by the rumoured benefits: the legendary gifts of sunglasses and trekking shoes, huge tips, promises of airline tickets and scholarships. If they do find work as guides, they can send money home, but money is not much help to families struggling to work unmechanised farms with fewer and fewer hands.

At annual tsechus, the masked dances celebrating Buddhist teachings, tourists have trailed the dancers with video cameras, or sat on chairs blocking the view of local people cross-legged on the ground behind them. On one hand, having paid US $240 a day to experience a tsechu, shouldn't they be entitled to see it? On the other, the tsechu is an old and sacred festival performed for the people of Bhutan; it is not a tourist show.

This is not to suggest that Bhutan should slam shut its doors. Tourism brings much needed income to a country trying to forge a balanced approach to development, a middle way between a traditional, hierarchical, agrarian past and full-scale economic development. Bhutan has done its best to curtail the industry's harmful impacts.

Since it is impossible to eliminate every negative aftereffect, let us inquire instead about the positive impact Bhutan can have on the tourist. Although Bhutan is among the world's poorest countries in terms of GDP, tourists are usually deeply moved by their experience there. The most magical place, they say, so clean and beautiful, and the people were kind and polite, and seemed happy with what they had. Let us hope that on return from places like Bhutan, we will be kinder neighbours and more thoughtful consumers, that we will walk instead of taking the car, that we will remember more than the view.

Jamie Zeppa is the author of `Beyond the Sky and the Earth: a journey into Bhutan' (Macmillan, pounds 16.99)