Lonely Planet: “Bhutan, the best country to visit in 2020”

What does this mean to me? – A perspective

A gush of gratitude, “Thank you Lonely Planet!”, and a rush of responsibility, “We need to make sure we are able to live up to the now sky-high expectations of visitors to our country!”, are the two emotions that reigned me when I first heard about this recognition.

As a country, we have been very fortunate. By the grace and extraordinary leadership of our enlightened Monarchs, we have inherited a peaceful nation, where the groundwork has been laid to preserve our culture and nature for future generations.  With this inheritance comes the great responsibility to not squander it, but to nurture it and make it grow further.

Part of our inheritance is the legacy of His Majesty The Fourth King who with the guiding principle of “High Value, Low Volume” already set the tone of Bhutan as an exclusive tourism destination in the early seventies. It seamlessly integrates with our nation’s Gross National Happiness development philosophy, whereby the balance between the present material gains of tourism and the future well-being of our nation as a whole should be maintained.

Therefore, tourism in Bhutan is never only about receipts and revenues. Rather, receipts and revenues shall be always secondary to the goals of preservation and promotion of our unique Constitution and Culture; Dynasty and Democracy; History and Happiness (GNH); Nature and Narratives; and People and Policies.    

This made me contemplate the Tsa-Wa-Sum and wonder; are we doing all we can do to serve this sacred trinity in our tourism sector?

The world has become more and more interconnected, and with this comes both opportunity and risk. The opportunity is clear; with Bhutan continuously receiving recognition in the worldwide media, of which the most recent one was by Lonely Planet, we can now expect a further increase in the number of travelers interested in visiting our country. The risk, however, is less obvious; if we act complacent and take this interest in Bhutan for granted, we might in the near future no longer be able to meet the high expectations of those travelers, and with it lose our current position as an exclusive and unique travel destination.

How can we make sure we are able to better meet those high expectations? I feel there are many pieces to that puzzle and it requires each and every one of us to solve it. Although I am sure there are many more, I would nevertheless like to share some of these puzzle pieces, which I feel can help further improve the services and standards in our tourism sector. Actually I like to believe these as not options but a decision we all need to embrace and act upon:

Thrashing Trash

Not very long ago, our country’s environment was truly pristine. Even today, without exception, visitors expect the same. To the outside world, Bhutan is still the last Shangri-La. However, with the advent of packaged products, and the adoption of irresponsible modern lifestyles, trash can be seen everywhere. From the busy streets of Thimphu to the remote trails of the Snowman Trek. Today, trash is a sore sight wherever we look.

We know that unattended trash can be hazardous to the health of humans and the environment as a whole. While the government and civil societies can come up with numerous interventions, I believe the only sustainable solution is self-responsibility. We all have to participate in keeping our country clean from the core of our hearts. It does not take a rocket science to figure out that littering is no good for myself, my family, my community, my country and ultimately Our World.

Lets do our part and dispose of trash in a responsible manner. If there are no garbage bins around while outside, just take one’s trash home.

Dog Duty

An abundance of free roaming (stray) dogs might be one of the first things a tourist will observe and hear upon arrival Bhutan, especially in urban areas. Many tourists have been heard commenting (read: complaining) on not only on the large number of stray dogs, but also on the poor practice of compassion by many of us with regard to their plight. Instead of always pointing fingers at the government agencies or CSOs engaged in animal welfare, each Bhutanese as an individual should take more responsibility in managing the stray dog population. Maybe we can follow a good example of the Trongsa citizens by adopting one stray dog each, and supporting the animal welfare organizations in their sterilization efforts.

Protecting Public Properties

Public service points and spaces like toilets, rest canopies, cinemas, drinking water taps, bridges, ATMs, ticket counters, monuments, rivers, streams, lakes, gardens and parks, walking trails, forests, roads, dustbins and others need to be treated as one’s own property. Let’s use these services and resources mindfully and leave these in better condition that we found them.

True Tour Operators

While tour operators are the ones responsible for creating the overall guest experience? They have to choose the right accommodation, the right guide, the right driver and design the right itinerary. As every guest or group is unique, and they all deserve delivery on our promise of “High Value”.

This means conducting their business following good ethics, respecting partners and other stakeholders, and upholding the nation’s policy and rules. Undercutting leads to a devaluation of our country on many levels and endangers the future of tourism.

As the first recipients of the tourism dollars, they have the responsibility to pay their dues in a timely fashion, as extended (bad) debts can lead to compromises in other allied services such as the hotel, restaurant, guiding and transport. 

Good to Great Guides

Everyone can agree that guides play a very crucial role in determining the overall experience and satisfaction level of a tourist, either in a positive or a negative way. A guide has many roles and responsibilities. They should be willing and ready to play the role of a friend, a servant, a security officer, a teacher, a student. And a guide’s core responsibility is to make sure the guest is comfortable, safe and conducting appropriately, honoring culture and nature while traveling through Bhutan.

All in all, a guide needs to be a role model, the perfect representative of our country. Although many things come to mind in this regard, some very basic behavior while on duty is expected, for instance: no eating doma, no smoking, no drinking.  

Devoted Drivers

Invariably guests will use a vehicle to travel around. Therefore, the condition of the vehicle has to be up to standard, both on a safety level as well as on a cleanliness level. The behavior of the driver is often equally important to a guest’s experience as the guide’s, and as such should be beyond reproach. For instance: no speeding, no unsafe overtaking and no calling on the phone while driving. Drivers should assist the guides.

Homely Hotels (& Restaurants)

Hotels are supposed to be a home away from home. While physical facilities have to be up to standard, even more important I would consider the personal touch and care in offering services to guests. Let’s not undercut, because undercutting leads undoubtedly to compromised services, not adhering to our “High Value” promise. Sometimes, the meals provided to the local tour operators, guides and drivers are given more care and attention than to the tourists, which is a serious case of misplaced priority.

While the owners and managers are of course accountable for the delivery of high-quality services to guests, at the end of the day the on-the-ground responsibility falls on the chefs and cooks, waiters and waitresses, housekeepers, security personnels, and other service staff. So each and everyone should work as a team, give their best, and then take pride in a job well done. 

Homemade Handicrafts

Authentic is the keyword here. Guests will be not happy to learn that the souvenirs they bought are not actually made in Bhutan. Let’s not cheat our guests. If an item is imported, we have the responsibility to let the buyer know so.

What is more, promoting authentic Bhutanese souvenirs can help in keeping our culture and traditions alive.

Perfecting Public Services

The delivery of all public services need to be improved in multi-folds. For example incoming calls are not always answered which frustrates the callers who are usually service seekers.  Likewise, there are many public offices where the tourism-related service seekers, notwithstanding the fact that some clients can be also unreasonably demanding, are facing inconveniences, ranging from a waste of their time to a waste of their money. All due to complacency, arrogance, ignorance, poor understanding of rules and regulations, poor ownership of one’s responsibility, poor coordination, technology shortcomings, to name a few of the possible things experienced.  Many times, these shortcomings also translate to similar inconveniences and poorer experienced by guests.

Today, paradoxically, public services are still being provided more as a gesture of special favor and not as one’s mandated duty. Sometimes services are offered based on the profile of the clients, meaning a simple citizen with no special profile can be almost ignored, delayed and even denied a certain service. These are all in contradiction to the Tsa-Wa-Sum, the concept of a public SERVANT, and the promise made by the tourism policy of “High Value, Low Volume”.

Bhutanese as Brand Ambassadors

“One of the game-changing advances that Bhutan can do is the deployment of brand ambassadors. These ambassadors are actually your own people, the ordinary Bhutanese”, said Mr Koh Buck Song. It has been Singapore’s main operating model for the last 50 years and without a doubt a successful one at that.

While our Monarchy, GNH, Nature, and Culture are the core elements of Brand Bhutan, the (extra-) ordinary Bhutanese are by default the brand ambassadors of the country. It is the Bhutanese people in the form of tour operators, guides, hoteliers, service staff, porters, police, farmers, air hostesses and stewards, public servants, shop keepers, drivers, cooks, farmers and others, that the visitors come in direct contact with. So, while infrastructure and facilities, the so-called the hardware part is also important, the human element, the so-called software part, is for sure more important. Therefore, as expressed above, every Bhutanese has to take ownership of this responsibility of being a “Brand Ambassador” to our blessed nation.

Last, but not least…..Let us all be a happy and a responsible host. After all, Happiness is not only about a Place, its also about People!

1 Disclaimer: The author Dorji Dhradhul is working as the Director General in Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB). However the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the TCB. 

2 Tsa-Wa-Sum – it’s an uniquely Bhutanese term meaning – the triple gem comprising of King, People and Country. 

3 Koh Buck Song (2018). Brand Singapore: Nation branding after Lee Kuan Yew, in a divisive world. Marshall Cavendish International (Asia) Pte Ltd.