Bhutan: Many a Mountain to Climb
Bhutan’s aesthetic beauty and historical fascination is undoubted, but the country is now looking to translate such attractions into more tangible economic returns
Bhutan understandably wouldn’t be one of the first countries that spring to mind when identifying lucrative business opportunities, but as the country looks to concertedly advance and diversify its economic drivers, the natural splendour and historic appeal that awaits prospective visitors is unlike anything else on the planet.
For years, Bhutan has led a rather solitary life as one of the most untouched nations in the world. Having never been colonised, its only influences emanate from its Indian neighbours on one side, and its Buddhism-based Tibetan relationship on the other side.
Inevitably this has culminated in a rather insular approach when it comes to business as well, the country remaining largely reliant on traditional strands of agriculture in order to keep its citizens content. However, with Bhutan still technically a ‘least economically developed country’, the past decade has seen slow but sure moves to instigate an economic transformation.
From a logistical standpoint, the transformation won’t be easy and will take many decades more; its subtropical flat farmlands in the south balanced out by Himalayan mountains in the north, but neither particularly designed for an infrastructural revolution.
With each baby step though comes an increased likelihood of both tourists and business travellers being able to explore Bhutan’s wonderful landscape, and for those lucky few, it will be a trip to remember.
Facts and figures
Capital city: Thimphu
Area: 38,394 square kilometres
Population (2016 estimate): 797,765
GDP (2017): $7.045 billion
Currency: Ngultrum (BTN) & Indian rupee (INR)
Time zone: UTC+6
Dialling code: +975
Internet TLD: .bt
The Business End
Across the South Asian region, Bhutan has often ranked first among parameters including economic freedom, ease of doing business, lack of corruption, and peace. However, this perhaps shouldn’t be surprising considering the lack of variables that have been added to the melting pot traditionally.
Safety in stagnation certainly isn’t the strategy anymore though, and a host of budding signs have begun to indicate diversification of services and business lines across the board.
A decade ago, these signs were already being translated into tangible results as its economy rose by eight and 14 percent in respective years between 2005 and 2007, making it the second fastest growing economy in the world at the time. The commissioning of the Tala Hydroelectric Power Station compounded this shift of gear from an energy generation perspective, alluding to a variation that had never really been seen in a country that had always looked towards agriculture and forestry as its primary sources of business.
Similar improvements to Bhutan’s manufacturing, construction, tourism and technology sectors - including Thimphu TechPark being launched in 2012 to promote innovative startups - have ensured that these early successes have been built upon, and the facilitation of prospective business travel is subsequently more resounding than ever.
And while these early improvements are small steps towards a promising future, it shouldn’t be underestimated how challenging the road ahead is in a country where landscape undulations make transport infrastructure development a serious difficulty.
Out and About
Two areas of interest spring to mind when planning a trip to Bhutan and neither require anything other than a strong pair of walking boots and a fascination with natural history. These two facets are scenic beauty, and historical significance.
Unlike a New York, a London or a Paris where you can race from eatery, to art gallery to theatre, to casino, Bhutan need not tamper with what it has to offer, given that it already boasts a globally unique offering.
On the nature side, you can mix subtropical heat in the south with mountainous snow in the north, via a host of wildlife parks, organised tours and treks, and outstanding scenic splendour in between.
Embedded into these mountains and forests though are a host of spectacular temples and monasteries – or Dzongs – which formulate the must-see attractions in Bhutan.
In your spare time in Bhutan you could a lot worse than plotting your travels in accordance with these Dzongs; making Paro Dzong and Punakha Dzong a foremost port of call, before also venturing towards Trongsa, Jakar, Lhuentse, Simtokha, Gasa, Rinpung, Gonggar, Gyantse, Singye, Shongar, Tsechen… and the list goes on…
From a tourism perspective, these historical artefacts have played a massive role in bringing more than 100,000 visitors into the country each year over the past decade or so; avid travellers making the most of seeing one of the world’s last few countries to be largely untouched by outside influences.
That being said, the country still isn’t the easiest to both get to or navigate once there, so prior planning needs to be every bit as precise as Bhutan’s esteemed archery festivals.
Among the more than 1,400 tour operators that exist within Bhutan, Yu-Druk Tours & Treks stands as one of the first and foremost. As a mid-sized entity that mixes upmost quality and safety with entrepreneurial flair and fun flexibility, Yu-Druk connects visitors with the most vibrant, poignant and fascinating annual events that the country has to offer.
Food & Drink
Upon your arrival to Paro Airport, the only international airport in Bhutan, it’s fair to say that your travel options around the country are limited, but once again there are plans in place to remedy the situation. A collaborative rail link with India has been in the pipeline for a long time and will certainly speed up the moving process between certain destinations.
In the meantime though, the nation’s roads are really the only way to get around. Buses are few and far between but are expanding. But really, the car is the best way forward, and utmost caution is the order of the day; every day!
There are numerous corridors connecting most of the key sought-after destinations but with nearly every route comes an element of danger whether it’s due to pavement conditions, sheer mountainous drops, hairpin turns, weather fluctuations or even landslides.
Again, these dangers have not escaped the powers that be’s attentions and plans are being initiated to widen some roads and make them more secure. And I’m sure, for many travellers, these precarious dynamics will form part of the charm of your trip. But for those who simply want to travel from place to place as efficiently and safely as possible, the best advice is to plan well in advance, stock up on provisions should road blocks hinder your journey, and drive carefully.
“Paro Taktsang is a Buddhist temple complex which clings to a cliff, 3,120 meters above the sea level on the side of the upper Paro valley, Bhutan. Mountainous Paro valley is the heart of Bhutan… [and] The Taktsang Palphug Monastery is one of the most famous touristic destinations of the country and the cultural icon of Bhutan. Visiting the Paro Taktsang Monastery is an unforgettable experience thanks to its unique location and the views of surrounding majestic mountains and emerald green valleys.” – Taktsang Palphug Monastery
“Haa Valley” was only recently opened to tourism and has remained beautifully quaint and untainted by the influences of modern development. Experience Bhutanese hospitality at the beautifully restored Lechuna Heritage Lodge, engage in a variety of hikes that range from easy to moderate, or bike around the valley or riverside in this quiet location. Our experienced guides lead guests through the Haa and Paro Valleys on day walks, incorporating Taktsang ‘Tiger’s Nest’ Monastery, and a wild hike to Kila Nunnery, between the two valleys.” – Bhutan Travel Bureau
Punakha Dzong in western Bhutan it’s often considered the most beautiful Dzong in the country, it is also the most important Dzong in Bhutanese history. The Punakha Dzong is by far the most famous sight in Bhutan, at par with The Tiger’s Nest in Paro so it´s easy to understand why the Punakha Dzong it´s one of the top three sights in Bhutan, the two others being the Tiger Nest Monastery and Dochula Pass. – Unusual Traveller