Bhutan shows the way

Bhutan shows the way

Nestled in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan or the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’ is one of the most pristine and exclusive global travel destinations. Bhutan presents a mosaic of rich cultural and natural heritage, with spectacular landscapes and cultural traditions still thriving. With an area of 38,394 square km, Bhutan has a total population of little over 7,00,000. This is a country that is fiercely proud of its heritage and wants to preserve it at all costs. The Bhutanese revere their natural heritage and consider it as their source of life.

A biodiversity hotspot

Bhutan connects two major biogeographic zones, the Indo-Malayan and Palearctic and is part of the Eastern Himalayan biodiversity hotspot. It is considered to be one of the world’s 10 most biodiverse regions with ecosystems that include tropical/sub-tropical grasslands and forests in the southern foothills, temperate forests in the central mountains and valleys and alpine meadows in the northern mountains.

The country has 23 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) and a number of Important Plant Areas (IPAs), 10 of which are exclusively for medicinal plants. A significant indicator of the level of good protection of habitats and research is the rediscovery of the Ludlow’s Swallowtail butterfly in 2009 after its first sighting in 1934-35. As a predominantly agriculture-based country, it also has a diversity of agricultural crops with 80 species and several landraces that have evolved as a result of various micro-climatic conditions.

Protected Areas and connecting biological corridors cover 51.32% of the country. The Protected Area (PA) system of Bhutan is regarded as one of the most comprehensive ones globally as it represents all the major ecosystems found in the country with biological corridors providing a continuum. These Protected Areas are also considered as important carbon sinks.

However, PAs in Bhutan too are confronted with several emerging threats. There is a rise in human-wildlife conflict and subsequent increase in poaching. Bhutan’s geographic location makes it vulnerable to illegal wildlife trade that the authorities are finding difficult to control. Funding is critical to address these threats.

It is with this in mind that an innovative funding mechanism called Bhutan for Life has been established. Spearheaded by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), this is a
multi-donor initiative where funds will not be distributed until the total committed amount has been collected. This amount will then be placed under what is called a ‘transition fund’ that will start making payments, high amounts to begin with but will steadily decline over the projected period of 14 years.

The Royal Government of Bhutan will simultaneously increase its own funding and at the end of the 14-year period, will be financially supporting the Protected Area system entirely on its own. Potential internal sources of funding include a green tax levied on import of vehicles, payment of ecosystem services primarily from hydropower and revenue generated from ecotourism in protected areas. 

Bhutan has a forest cover of 72% in response to the Bhutanese constitution that makes it mandatory to have at least 60% of the country under forest cover. This is a significant factor that makes Bhutan a ‘carbon neutral’ country. In fact, as stated by its dynamic Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, it is a ‘carbon negative’ country with a carbon sink absorbing 3 times more carbon dioxide emissions than its population produces.

Despite this, the tiny Himalayan country is still vulnerable to climate change. Glaciers are melting causing flash floods and landslides. Bhutan has over 2,700 glacial lakes out of which 25 have been declared as potentially dangerous. About 80% of Bhutanese practise subsistence agriculture and variations in climate are already impacting livelihoods.

But Bhutan is gearing up to this challenge. The forest cover and the PA system are Bhutan’s investment to combat climate change. There is also a focus on the transport sector with a move to create more user-friendly transport and discourage the use of private cars. Bhutan made a commitment at the Copenhagen Conference of Parties (COP) 12 in 2009 stating, “We commit ourselves to keep absorbing more carbon than we emit — and to maintain our country’s status as a net sink for greenhouse gas.” In December 2015, at Paris COP 21, Bhutan reiterated its promise of remaining carbon neutral, now and in the future.

Tourism gains
Bhutan opened up to tourism in 1974 with the primary objective of showcasing Bhutan’s unique heritage, as also generating revenue to support the development of the country. However, the royal government was aware of the negative impacts of mass tourism and hence approached this with caution. Thus came into being the policy of ‘high value-low volume’  tourism that would enable control over both the type as well as the number of tourists from the very beginning.

The concept of a daily tariff of US$250 for each tourist in the peak season and US$200 in the low season was introduced. The daily tariff includes the visa, accommodation, meals, transportation and guide services. Out of the daily tariff ,a percentage is a tourism royalty that contributes to the country’s overall support to free healthcare and education. The rest of the tariff is for local tour operators to provide services to the tourists.

The imposition of a daily tariff discouraged low-budget tourists and captured high-spending ones. This strategy was also based on Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) philosophy that the formula of the country’s progress would need to consider equitable economic development, environmental conservation, cultural protection and good governance rather than the standard Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

This is a well thought-out system and Bhutan is indeed a pioneer in regulating tourism in the country, but still earning revenue from it. However, Bhutan is now facing a serious dilemma in tourism. There has been a drastic increase in regional tourists from India, Bangladesh and Maldives over the last few years. The number of regional tourists have gone up from 53,492 in 2012 to 1,09,051 in 2015. The reasons for this are many.

Bhutan has gained popularity as an exotic destination over the years. Regional tourists do not require a visa to enter Bhutan and unlike other tourists, are exempt from the daily tariff. This makes Bhutan an easily accessible and affordable destination for visitors from neighbouring countries. Bhutan is also easily reachable by road and regional tourists can drive their own vehicles once they get through immigration at the border.

Bhutan is aware of this challenge too and is looking at ways to resolve it. Perhaps, the most important at this stage would be to determine the carrying capacity of the country as a whole or of the key tourist destinations. This is of course easier said than done, but again if seriously tackled, will set an example for the rest of the world. There’s a lot to learn from Bhutan’s progressive and eco-friendly policies. Maybe it’s time we took some lessons from them.

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