Despite being in the country for a year and a half, I have yet to see the bulk of tourist destinations that exist in Bhutan. In compliance with the ‘high value, low impact’ tourism policy, much of what is available is outside my price range including numerous high-end hotels, trekking destinations in the far north, and so on. These various tourism products however, are outside of the scope of what ecotourism tries to provide. In the past I have tried to differentiate between traditional tourism and ecotourism, please see “Ecotourism”. Ecotourism products include tourism options that not only provide eco-friendly options to experience the outdoors, but also deliver economic and livelihood benefits to local communities. This often requires that local communities are involved in decision-making, management, and ownership of the ecotourism venture. However, in Bhutan’s case, such ecotourism options are difficult for rural communities to invest in due to policies that favor a specific type of tourism. Such policies target wealthier travellers that expect an increased level of accommodation and services, which are often not associated with the ‘raw’ style of ecotourism, which seeks to open a window into the lives of local peoples and their environment. Dhan Gurung and Klaus Seeland were correct in their estimation that a “prerequisite for a substantial promotion of ecotourism would be changes in the Bhutanese tourism policy to encourage the diversification of tourism products”. 1
Another interesting element of Gurung’s expanded research is that when various experts were polled to determine which tourism strategies should be employed to best meet community development goals, the current status quo ranked at the bottom of the list.2 The number one option ranked by experts was community based ecotourism, followed by community based socio-cultural tours and then trekking. Granted, this specific study was focused on scenarios inside Jigme Dorji National Park, however I think similar parallels exist outside Bhutan’s protected areas system.
Tourism in Bhutan began in 1974 with a mere 287 visitors. In 2013 there were 52,783 international visitors, which is apart from the 63,426 regional arrivals (India, Bangladesh, and Maldives).3 The question is, who is experiencing the benefits of such an increase? It seems that relatively few tourism companies/individuals are, leaving much of the rural population untouched. A demand for ecotourism is on the rise and may be the answer to proper distribution of tourism economic benefits.
1 Gurung, D.B. & Seeland, K. (2008). Ecotourism in Bhutan: Extending its Benefits to Rural Communities. Annals of Tourism Research 35(2), 489-508.
2 Gurung, D.B. & Scholz, R. (2008). Community-based ecotourism in Bhutan: Expert evaluation of stakeholder-based scenarios. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology 15, 397-411.
3 Tourism Council of Bhutan. (2014). Bhutan Tourism Monitor: Annual Report 2013. Thimphu, Bhutan.