Happiness is Haa: Herald of a community-based ecotourism destination in Bhutan

Happiness is Haa: Herald of a community-based ecotourism destination in Bhutan

If you are planning a getaway day trip in Bhutan, there’s perhaps no other better place than the Haa Valley. Sharing its borders with Sikkim and Tibet, Haa is a hidden jewel – although a mere two-and-a-half-hour drive from the Paro International Airport – that shines forth as a model ecotourism destination.

Its tranquility is legendary and its architecture a thing of marvel. Add to that the exotica of its rural lifestyle – of yak herding and farming – and you are on a fascinating terrain that can awaken your senses and also your sense of wonder. As you drive – or cycle or trek – down to Haa via Chelela, Bhutan’s highest drivable pass, you are greeted by the sight of that majestic guardian, the Meri Punsum mountain range of three ‘sister’ hills of similar height, shape, and magnificence. And nestled in it are two of Bhutan’s most sacred lhakhangs (monasteries) – Lhakhang Karpo (White Temple) and Lhakhang Nagpo (Black Temple), monuments to the valley’s strong Buddhist traditions.

When tourists and travelers spend time at Haa’s home stays, they get lucky to experience life as the people of Haa (the Haaps) have for generations and centuries – picking apples, soaking in the traditional hot-stone baths, and learning to cook dishes that are unique to the valley. Then they get to realise how well preserved the culture and traditions of Haa are. And how spiritually enriching the whole Haa experience is.

But Haa is much more than a cultural and spiritual journey. It’s equally a nature treasure trove with its myriad flora and fauna and the many trails into untouched forests. Like the Jigme Khesar Strict Nature Reserve for instance. The records say that Haa is home to four endangered species, seven vulnerable species, eight near-threatened species, and 23 species of least-threatened mammals; it is also a playground of keystone species like the snow leopard and the red panda, and of 203 species of birds and 427 species of flora. Last but certainly not least, it is the endemic land of the rare white poppy.

Nature-positive investment for better ecotourism

The Royal Government of Bhutan’s 12th Five-Year Plan (2018–2023) promotes community-based ecotourism by stressing on the importance of ‘nature-positive’ tourism development. This is a larger umbrella that houses the Destination Haa Development Plan (2018 –2023) with its spotlight on heralding a systematic and coordinated mechanism for community-based ecotourism development. Bhutan is also part of the greater Kangchenjunga Landscape (KL), a trans boundary trilateral initiative of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) designed to conserve and manage ecosystem goods and services. 

Towards this end, the Bhutanese government promotes high-value, low-volume tourism. Its tourism policy’s focus is on nature, local communities, sustainable consumption and production practices, and efficient service delivery – all reflecting the government’s strategic thrust to usher in green and inclusive recovery for a tourism industry that suffered the most during the COVID pandemic. Bhutan has adopted a concerted resilience-building strategy for the revival of its tourism industry and businesses; this involves a National Resilience Fund, an Economic Contingency Plan, grants, concessional borrowing, and a National Credit Guarantee Scheme.  These national-level responses aim to protect, revive, and restore jobs; bolster businesses and industry; and enable sustainable financing for both immediate and long-term needs.

In Haa, the district administration is headlining the valley’s unspoilt nature and rich cultural legacy to foster ecotourism. This community-based ecotourism-development approach focuses on investing in nature-positive tourism activities. Haa’s unique selling proposition lies in its pristine environment, traditional cuisine, and agro-pastoral livelihoods. The protection and preservation of this natural heritage and thus the livelihoods of the Haaps require nurturing of these valuable assets. This can be done by nature-positive investment backed by tourism revenue. Such investment also brings employment and equitable benefits to women and youth.

The Destination Haa Development Plan’s primary aim is to enhance the ecological integrity of the valley and improve the livelihoods of its people. In this framework, community-based ecotourism, with its emphasis on homestays, serves as a promising avenue to promote equitable distribution of tourism revenue; this involves supporting the diversification of products and services of small businesses; these products and services are mostly in the form of local and organic food and dairy produce, and avenues to experience rural farm life. A total of 20 home stays have now been supported in Haa in this fashion. Besides, investments in nature walk, hiking, botanical tours, and bird watching have been made as part of promotion of nature-positive tourism activities. The resources for these activities come from the administrative agencies of Haa, the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), the Association of Bhutanese Tour Operators (ABTO), the Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN), the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and ICIMOD. These efforts also draw on the collective knowledge and experience from communities and ecotourism practices in India and Nepal, which are part of the KL.

All said, Haa is an important Bhutanese natural and cultural congregation that is waiting to be explored by both domestic and foreign footprints. In fact, limiting the journey to a mere day trip would do no justice to what this valley and its people have to offer. Perhaps the biggest offering of them all is happiness – Ha Happiness! 

Traveler tips

•       Best time to visit: Autumn – October and November

•       Activities: Go on a hike; do the poppy trail trek; be a pilgrim; indulge in the most delectable local cuisine; and chase the nomadic life.

Contributed by Dr. Anu Kumari Lama, Tourism Specialist ICIMOD

Dr. Anu has over 22 years of experience of working in the fields of sustainable tourism development, climate action and local, national and regional cooperation at policy, practice and science interface and is one of the Lead Experts of International Tourism Panel on Climate Change (TPCC) that aim to bring the sustainable tourism and net zero agenda in the mainstream climate action and sustainable development goals discourse.