Bhutan's Gross National Happiness & Money-Grubbing

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 4/20/2014 12:06:00 AM
Everybody Wangchuck [L] Tonight and Meet the Jetsun [R].
Us Asians are routinely amused by Westerners buying our dear neighbor Bhutan's schtick hook, line and sinker. You see, Bhutan is famous the world over for measuring "gross national happiness" instead of the materialistic, output-oriented measures us unenlightened folks use like GDP and GNP. King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck is certainly not averse to playing along. Especially among self-styled "progressives" this is taken as evidence for their enlightened stance in the place of mammon-worship common to the rest of us.

Take, for instance, this travelogue from Canada's Globe and Mail:
I was in the Kingdom of Bhutan, a small, mountainous country sandwiched between the giants of India and China. Protected all around by the snow-capped Himalayas, this is a place with its own distinct culture, ruled by a 34-year-old king who loves romantic comedies and Elvis, and guided by the principles of Gross National Happiness. While it may not be the easiest travel destination – Bhutan requires a prepaid daily minimum spend in order to secure a visa, and a trip from Canada will involve at least three separate flights – visiting this kingdom in the clouds can feel like a journey to another world, an almost-mystical destination that’s even more difficult to leave.
At this point I should also mention Jetsun Pema, formerly a student in London who now outdoes Kate Middleton by virtue of her exalted status as queen opposed to just a princess. Like Princess Catherine, she has become tabloid fodder. (Surely it helps draw the tourists?) I guess the glamor got to our Globe and Mail correspondent who goes about tossing lots of softballs Snowden 'n' Putin-style until he elaborates on this part:
The Bhutanese government requires visitors to spend a minimum of between $200 (U.S.) to $250 a day in order to issue a visa. The funds include basic hotel, guide and meals and must be prepaid to an approved tour operator. Visitors are also welcome to spend more, and have many opportunities to do so at one of the country’s luxury lodges. For more information, visit [...]
Wait, wait, wait: In the middle of all these paeans to the progressiveness of being more concerned with happiness than material possessions, we learn that Bhutan does not welcome travelers on a shoestring budget. Shouldn't Bhutan be "sharing" all this happiness with folks of lesser means? What's more, doesn't encouraging a minimum spend contradict the notion of being anti-materialistic? Bhutan's tourist information also points this out:
The minimum daily package for tourists travelling in a group of 3 persons or more is as follows: USD $200 per person per night for the months of January, February, June, July, August, and December. USD $250 per person per night for the months of March, April, May, September, October, and November
So much for Bhutan being the world's biggest hippie commune. To be fair, though, there are two lines of argument here:
  1. Bhutan is populated by money-grubbing hypocrites (see above); or
  2. The minimum spend provision has to deal with promoting sustainable tourism. Backpackers and the sort are not welcome since they go it alone and are more likely to be insensitive to polluting the environment, observing modest behavior, and generally acting ugly. By providing fewer guests with guides, this sort of inappropriate conduct is avoided for the benefit of all.
Bhutan obviously takes the second line:
The royal government has always been aware that an unrestricted flow of tourists can have negative impacts on Bhutan's pristine environment and its rich and unique culture. The government, therefore, adopted a policy of "high value-low volume" tourism, controlling the type and quantity of tourism right from the start.
All that's well and good, but isn't it all a tad elitist and materialistic?
So far, the government’s objective of maximizing foreign exchange earnings while minimizing the potentially adverse cultural and environmental impacts of tourism has paid off. The number of tourist arrivals has increased from just 287 in 1974 to close to 41,000 high-end tourists [my emphasis] in 2010. There was also a 56% increase on 2009 figures in high-end arrivals from neighbouring countries, especially India, highlighting the importance of the regional market.
Actually, Bhutan does not restrict tourist numbers, which would make sense ecologically speaking. So, combine a minimum daily spend with unlimited arrivals and it's hard not to question all these "green" and "post-materialist" marketing gimmicks that ever-so-gullible Westerners keep lapping up. Whatever your opinion of the matter, let's just say that economic considerations are not totally out of the picture. They're quite hard-nosed about all this travel business, actually. Plus, it makes me wonder why Bhutan is included in the Lonely Planet guide when the country is definitely not marketing itself to travelers on a shoestring budget.