Lessons from the Highlands

The Royal Highland Festival, which could not be hosted for two years due to the COVID 19 pandemic was held at Laya on October 23, 2022. Unlike the pre-pandemic years, the festival did not see scores of tourists. Nonetheless, people from different parts of the country attended the festival, which was graced by His Majesty the King.

The significance of the festival is woven around the fact that it started in 2016 at the command of His Majesty; a year very rare, for three auspicious and significant events converged in 2016. The year saw Drukyul blessed with her future with the birth of His Royal Highness Gyalsey Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck. It was also the 400th year of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel’s arrival in Bhutan and the Rabjung (60 years cycle) birth year of Guru Rimpoche.

The beauty of the festival is that the people of Laya and other highlanders understand the festival’s worth. While they do earn during the festival, deep inside, they have realized the roles they play as people residing in the frontiers and additionally as one of Tourism’s magnets. The words of Wangchuk from Nyelu village, on the prospect of a short training on hospitality to equip them with skills to improve service delivery to tourists says a lot.

It is not just Wangchuk. There are others too, who have taken the responsibility to improve Laya’s status as a tourism hotspot. They know that hundreds of tourists visit Bhutan for a trek to Laya. They are aware that if they fail in delivering services, tourists visiting Bhutan may decrease. And as it happens in many cases, they are not asking or demanding anything in return.

Few weeks back, a group of Spanish tourists were at the Memorial Chorten. One was Gerad Esteva, chairman of the Union of Sports Federation of Catalonia, Spain. They were visiting Bhutan paying the revised SDF and when asked if it is expensive, he replied that “Bhutan is worth more than USD 200 a day.”

Further, for a reform to fall back on the track, time is required. We should not expect guests to arrive immediately. The pandemic has hit everyone hard.

What we can do is think like our people living in the Highlands about the different roles we can play in making Bhutan more attractive, as a tourist destination. We should not wait for “concerned agencies” to take the lead. We are all part of the reform. And we seriously need to listen to the voices coming from the Highlands.