Politics & Government

Bhutan woos high-end tourists

Bhutanese artisans make hand woven baskets at the Bhutan Exhibit during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Bhutanese artisans make hand woven baskets at the Bhutan Exhibit during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Rafael Suanes / MCT

WASHINGTON — Bhutan is looking for a few good tourists — and put the emphasis on "a few," please.

A Buddhist nation squeezed between India and China in the high Himalayas, its 680,000 residents had no television until 1999. Smaller than West Virginia, it's got just one cross-country road, barely a lane and a half wide, that takes two days to drive. And the government measures the impoverished country's success not by Gross Domestic Product but by a Gross National Happiness index.

This exotic developing country would be any world adventurer's playground. That's if you can spare several thousand dollars for airfare, lodging, food — and a hefty daily tourism tariff to top it off.

Bhutan didn't even allow tourists in until 1974.

"That was a time when there were lots of backpackers all over Asia," said John Sugnet, spokesman for Geographic Expeditions, a San Francisco-based tour operator that organizes trips to Bhutan. "They (the Bhutanese government) made a very conscious decision that they didn't want low-end tourism; they only wanted high-end tourism."

Keeping the riff-raff out is still a national goal.

"Our tourism policy is driven by a policy of high-quality, low volume," said Doma Tshering, a deputy permanent representative to the United Nations from Bhutan.

Tshering was on hand with over 100 other Bhutanese representatives at the Smithsonian Institution's annual Folklife Festival this week in Washington, D.C.

In front of their hospitality tent, a map of the country had a message scrawled on it: "HOW DO I GET TO BHUTAN? PLZ ASK US!"

But that welcome isn't always wholehearted.

Damcho Rinzin, a researcher for the government's Tourism Council of Bhutan, watched as curious visitors wandered into the tent. "We're being invaded now," he joked.

Ideally, there's a balance, Rinzin said: "As much as we want to preserve our culture and traditions, we also want to share our culture."

Visitors must pay at least $200 to a tour operator for each day's stay, and some of the country's 80 or so hotels add a surcharge. The government pockets more than a third of the $200 as a tourism tax.

Bhutan saw more than 20,000 tourists in 2007, Rinzin said.

"If we feel that there are too many tourists coming in, we may increase the pricing policy," he said.

Next year, that daily price — which has remained stable for several years — will go up to $250, Rinzin said.

Then there's the airfare. Roundtrip flights from Bangkok on Druk Air, the single, government-sponsored airline, can run to about $800. (A roundtrip flight from the United States to Bangkok is about $2,000.)

And you can't just book a flight on Expedia or pick up your visa at the nearest embassy. Bhutan requires that all of those arrangements be made through a professional tour operator like Geographic Expeditions.

Bethesda, Md. native Eleanor Zartman was visiting the hospitality stand at the Folklife Festival on Wednesday and getting excited about her scheduled October trip to Bhutan. Zartman, 72, an avid traveler, booked her trip with Waterbury, Vt.-based Country Walkers.

"You know it's not costing $4,000 to put us in tents and monasteries and give us yak tea," Zartman said.

Planning the trip — even with the aid of the agency — was difficult, and Zartman is dreading the three days of international airport hopping at either end of her Bhutan visit.

But she's what the country is looking for.

"They're more well-traveled people," Rinzin said. "They'll have genuine concern for the culture and the life of the people."