In Bhutan, it seems like everyone is smiling. The people I met while visiting this small country nestled deep in the Himalayan mountains, possess an almost childlike innocence that instantly reminded me of my two-year-old son.
My guide Ugyen and my chauffeur Jamyang were personally involved in making sure I was comfortable throughout my stay. As we made our way through the travel itinerary that they had planned out for me, they filled the experience with countless stories and conversations about their daily life, their ambitions, their family, and relationships.
What became very obvious to me the minute I stepped into this country is that the path to happiness and peacefulness that the Bhutanese share are in stark contrast to the things which drive us in our fast-paced Western world. In fact, the longer I was in Bhutan, the more I found myself rethinking my way of life and all the goals and priorities I’ve chosen for myself.
Perhaps, beyond the breathtaking landscapes and cultural attractions, this transformational experience has fueled the rising curiosity and interest among travelers.
That isn’t lost on the Bhutanese, either, who have carefully cultivated their tourism industry, promoting their county as an attractive travel destination while passionately protecting the culture and physical resources that make this region so unique. By all accounts their approach is working. Tourism numbers are on the rise, and the Lonely Planet just placed Bhutan as the number one bucket list destination for travelers in 2020.
While much has been written about Bhutan as a country, little has been said from a destination marketing perspective. Of course, Bhutan is very unique and some of their methods would be hard to apply anywhere else. But, there are nevertheless many fundamental lessons in destination marketing to be learned from Bhutan and the way its leaders have put this little out-of-the-way country on the travel map.
During my stay in Bhutan, I had the opportunity to speak with Damcho Rinzin, head of the tourism promotion division at the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) about their unique approach to tourism. What follows are some key take-aways from our interview and my experience as a traveler in Bhutan that are particularly important to any organization involved in destination marketing.
Tourism Policy Decisions Revolve Around National Values
From a branding perspective what makes Bhutan so special is that their core national values guide the way they live, work, and govern the country. This means to understand their approach to tourism, you have to understand their philosophy.
According to Bhutan’s former Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay, Bhutan is focused on,“Balancing economic growth with social development, environmental sustainability with cultural preservation — all within the framework of good governance.”
This holistic approach to development is called Gross National Happiness (GNH). It’s based on the principles of Buddhism, the national religion, with its focus on compassion, contentment and calmness. All development in Bhutan is guided by GNH in order to ensure the well-being and happiness of its residents.
When I spoke with Rinzin, he emphasized that the TCB makes tourism policy decisions which offer economical value, a positive impact to their culture, and a quality experience for travelers — as the TCB puts it “High value, Low volume” tourism.
He further explained that one of the biggest challenges facing the TCB is managing and developing all increasingly complex areas of tourism in Bhutan, while ensuring that the principles of GNH are being maintained. To that end, the national tourism department is broken down into four divisions:
- The Tourism Promotion Division. Which focuses on marketing and branding activities
- The Quality Division. Which handles all aspects of front line service providers, such as tour guides, hoteliers and tour agencies.
- The Service Division. In charge of visas and foreign exchange programs
- The Infrastructure Division. Oversees and develops the infrastructure needed to support tourism activities, such as roads, trains, bridges, trekking trails, camp sites, and farm stays.
Balancing Preservation with Development is a Priority
Destination marketing and the development it brings to a region can be a public good, bringing a variety of benefits to those who live there. But, this only applies when tourism decisions are based on their long-term impact, and the pros and cons are properly considered. When decisions are made that compromise the community’s future economic and social well-being, then everyone suffers — residents and tourists alike.
Many regions may give lip service to such ideals, but Bhutan is one country that actually puts its residents and natural resources first.
Bhutan’s leadership frequently point out that the country is one of the world’s 10 most biodiverse regions, home to almost 5 million acres of protected land covered in forests, virgin lakes and rivers, and thriving wildlife. It is estimated that over half of Bhutan’s protected areas are candidates for environmentally friendly development to support a range of ecotourism experiences and activities. Trekking and campsites are all designated and only allowed in these areas for the respect of conversation.
Though there are more hotels, coffee shops and souvenir stores being built in the cities, Bhutan’s commitment to “High value, Low volume” tourism remains strong.
One creative method that’s helping to achieve the balance between the need for economic development with the need to protect natural resources is its reliance on fees to discourage low cost tourism. Bhutan currently requires travelers to spend a minimum amount per day, from $250 to almost $2000 for luxury travelers. To ensure compliance, visitors need to sign up with a registered Bhutanese tour agency before their arrival. There are also controls in place to only allow a certain amount of people into the country each day.
Not only do these fees help to keep tourism at sustainable levels, but a portion of the funds generated, the so-called Sustainable Development Fee, provides direct revenue to the government to be used for social welfare of the country. In fact, the very first thing my guide did when I arrived was to thank me for coming. Because of my visit, there would be more dollars available to help fund free healthcare and education.
Since residents directly benefit from visitors, tourism initiative can more easily gains the buy-in of locals since they see the benefit of this industry first hand. This also helps fuel the outsider’s perception of peace and happiness, a further strengthening of Bhutan’s brand.
They Know How to Best Promote Their Uniqueness
Bhutan’s policy of ‘High value, Low volume’ tourism is not just about cultural and resource preservation. It also helps to create an atmosphere of exclusiveness and individuality — which is just what their preferred, high-end visitors are looking for. The fact that the country is geographically small, relatively undeveloped, sparsely populated and has traditions and philosophies that may seem at odds with the western world, are all highlighted by TCB as examples to further enhance this image.
While the Happiness Index may have initially turned heads on the world stage, the buoyant, uplifting and positive attitude of tourism workers and residents alike attracts attention. Whether most of Bhutan’s population is genuinely happy may be up for debate, but you have to give Bhutan credit for rather convincingly giving over that impression.
Though, India continues to be the main source market in terms of visitor arrivals, there has been a growing trend towards international travelers in recent years. As a direct result of their tourism marketing and development activities, Bhutan has been gaining in popularity in the international tourism community as a sustainable tourism destination.
All of this boils down to two fundamental marketing principles that organizations involved in destination marketing need to master:
- Knowing the core competencies and value proposition of the regional tourism industry
- Knowing in fine detail who the target market is
Bhutan Tourism is Focused on Personalized, Positive Experiences
Above all, Bhutan excels in the personalized experience it offers visitors. This experience fuels their efforts, and they are constantly looking for ways to enhance it.
“The ultimate goal is to give [visitors] a good time,” says Rinzin, and that happens to a large extent in the interaction between tourists and their tour guides. Tour guides aren’t just there to show people around. They also give visitors an insider’s perspective on the life and values of Bhutan, and this personal, off-line attention and interaction is refreshing. In Bhutan, tour guides are selected through stringent selection process and must receive certification by taking a guide training course and passing a rigorous test at the end.
There are also tight controls over what visitors can do. The pre-paid fees that visitors need to send cover accommodation, meals, vehicles and a driver, fuel, a guide, permits for visits and a set itinerary of daily excursions. While some may feel that such a set itinerary is a bit imposing, it actually adds to the experience, allowing Bhutan to show visitors the best it has to offer in the most opportune way.
In short, the tourism industry in Bhutan is as unique as the country itself. But, this unconventional approach has been generating some impressive results, and destination marketing organizations would do well to take notes.