Bangkok Post: Mountain kingdom has inspired choice for conference on sustainable tourism. Few people would have pictured Bhutan as the site of an event staged by a large mainstream tourism organisation, given the mountain kingdom’s zealous attempts to guard against being overwhelmed by the outside world.
But the choice of the picturesque town of Paro turned out to be an inspired one for organisers of the Pata Adventure Travel and Responsible Tourism Conference & Mart, which attracted 200 tourism professionals from 30 countries. The Bangkok-based Pacific Asia Travel Association (Pata) said it decided to hold the “historic” conference in environment-conscious Bhutan to draw attention to the current focus on sustainability in the global tourism industry.
“This is just what our country needed to boost our tourism industry,” said Bhutan’s ambassador to Thailand, Tshering Dorji. “In the short-term analysis, this mart has given us the confidence that we are on the right trajectory,” said Kesang Wangdi, the director-general of the Tourism Council of Bhutan. “But in the long term, we know that we need to be careful about how we manage our tourism, in a way that is both economically and environmentally viable.
“We are happy that our GNH theory is now being followed by the international community, thanks to a UN resolution.” He was referring to Bhutan’s unique Gross National Happiness (GNH) ethic, which has attracted a lot of attention among the public, politicians and policymakers around the world.
Explaining the GNH theory in the simplest of terms was Lyonpo Khandu, Bhutan’s Minister for Economic Affairs. “If you want to be happy, you need to make others happy,” said Mr Khandu, who is also the vice-chairman of the Tourism Council of Bhutan. It seemed to be a perfect philosophy for tourism, which is why this has become the single-most important industry in the country. After all, it has maximised employment and revenues, and helped to improve the collective happiness of the kingdom.
Mr Wangdi added that the tourism industry began in the isolated kingdom only in 1974. The Tourism Council of Bhutan was formed in 1990, with the prime minister as president. “Tourism was recognised as the primary, high-priority, equitable industry,” he stated. “But high value, low impact has always been the bedrock of our tourism philosophy.”
That was why the country limited its tourist numbers by specifying a daily tariff (now $250), except for those from three neighbouring countries _ India, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. Explaining the tariff system, the director-general said it was not a “fee” levied on the tourists, but was an expenditure target set for them, and included accommodation, food, transport. It was a method of attracting “quality” tourists and not mass-market numbers.
In 2011, the country attracted a record number of 40,000 tourists. “These are recorded by the BTM [Bhutan Tourism Monitor]. We also have the ABSD [Accelerating Bhutan's Socio-Economic Development] which monitors our tourism programmes, so that both the environment and employment are equally benefited,” said Mr Wangdi.
Explaining the GNH principles, Karma Tshiteem, secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission, provided details of indicators and indices that were used for every domain _ health, education, family, business, ecology, community development, good governance and more. Mr Wangdi said that with the tourism boom in the country, many international hotel chains were in business discussions with Bhutan.
“The government welcomes foreign direct investments, and in fact, is giving incentives to infrastructure development. They are offering 100% profit-sharing incentives for five-star hotels, 75% for four-star hotels, and so on,” he said. But he noted that all the new projects had to follow the GNH and ABSD strictures.
Most of the new resort-hotels built at Paro were community projects to help local employment. Mr Wangdi stated that they all had meeting rooms, since the country had started to promote the Mice market (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) and held many corporate conferences.
Two new airports had been constructed in eastern and central Bhutan. The national airline, Druk Air, plans to buy new aircraft, and start a new route to Singapore. Up to now, Bangkok has been its only stop in Southeast Asia. A new private carrier, Tashi Airlines, was also started last December. The top travel-companies of Bhutan, such as Yangphel Pvt Ltd, Bhutan Century Tours informed that the rapidly increasing tourist-groups to Bhutan, now came from the Asian countries.
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