Since it cautiously opened its borders 13 to foreign visitors in 1974, following the coronation of HM King Jigme Singhe Wangchuk, Bhutan has been earning about U$2 million a year from the tourist trade. Early in 1988, the Bhutanese Government virtually closed its borders and recalled its tourist promotion agents based abroad. Bhutan’s Director of Tourism Jigme Tshultim told a group of North American travel agents then that restrictions against foreign visitors were adopted because tourism was under-mining “the Buddhist faith”.
That decision had been based on the recommendations of a special committee for cultural affairs which analysed the effects of tourism on the local society. The report, submitted to the Bhutanese Parliament, described how cultural values had been severely affected by tourism. “Tourism is harmful to the holy nature of our Buddhist monasteries, contributes to the desecration of the country’s holy places and corrupts the population,” it pointed out.
As an expert on Bhutanese tourism stated, “Bhutan presents a unique example of a country that has learnt from other’s (read “Nepal”) experience to take tourism wisely and cautiously,” adding, “Bhutan is in no hurry to expand tourism.” Mindful that tourists can overrun traditional festivals, the Thimphu authorities decided to limit the number of tourists attending Paro Tsechu, a spring festival in the capital.
The introduction of services by Druk Air in 1983 between Paro, Calcutta and Dhaka had been a major event for Bhutanese tourism, and this year Paro was linked to Bangkok, Delhi and Kathmandu with a new 80-seater jet aircraft (Jan/Feb 1989 Himal!). A function of the policy of limiting tourists, perhaps, was that a recent flight to Kathmandu carried only 9 passengers.
While the planes might be running empty, the fear of tour operators that Bhutan would be completely inaccessible did not materialise, however. In 1974, 287 tourists trickled into Bhutan. With controls still in place, that number rose to 2,524 in 1987, and dipped to 2,195 in 1988. In 1989, the figure is expected to reach 3,500.
The monetary attractions are clear. Bhutan earned Ngultrum 10.4 million from international visitors. Last year, it earned Nu12.5 million (Nut = IRs1).
The Bhutan Tourism Corporation, which runs tourism in the country with a staff of 307 is deliberately opening the country from west to cast. Tours and treks began around Paro in the West, and have now been extended eastwards to central Bhutan, including the town of Bhumtang.A Tourism Master Plan initiated in 1984 began with construction of basic infrastructure such as lodges and hotels and training personnel. In the “medium term phase”, from 1991-1995, unless it is overtaken by events, the plan is to begin air services to central Bhutan and construct hotels in Bumthang, Mongar and Lhuntshi. The “long term phase”, beyond 1995, will see the extension of tourism all the way to the east and the development of winter wildlife tourism in the south.