About Bhutan

Bhutan is the only nation that has adopted VajrayanaBuddhism as a state religion. With more than 70% of the land area under forest cover,it has been marked as one of the world’s 10 biodiversity ‘hotspots’ along with the Amazon rainforests of South America and the Serengeti plains of Africa.

Having opted to stay isolated from the world for centuries, Bhutan opened up to the world only in the early 1960’s. It was then that the country adopted an approach, albeit a guarded one, to economic development and built its first roads, schools and hospitals. Very little has changed in the years hence.

When Bhutan is spoken about by foreigners who know of it, the accolades rarely cease. Its scenic beauty is a haven for photographers who rave that you can never take a bad picture in Bhutan. In spite ofa cautious tourism policy – and probably owing to it – the country has been rated as one of the top 20 most exotic travel destinations by National Geographic Travel magazine. Even historically, early European travelers to the country described it as “a country of majestic mountains, haunting ravines and primordial forests” where the people were “the handsomest race of men (I have) ever seen.”

The Bhutanese are known to be easy-going and friendly. And time, in what a best-selling Canadian writer called the Bhutan Time Warp, stands still. If you are looking for escape, Bhutan is probably the place to go.

BHUTAN in Brief
Political System: Democratic Constitutional Monarchy
Land Area: 38,400 square kilometres
Capital: Thimphu
Population: 660,000
Districts: 20
Forested land area: 72.5%
Protected land area: 26%
Cultivated land area: 7.8%
Country code: 975
Local time: Six hours ahead of GMT
National Sport: Archery
National Animal: Takin(BudocrasTaxicolor)
National Tree: Cypress (CupressusSempervirens)
National Flower: Blue Poppy (MeconopsisGrandis)
National Bird: Raven (CorvusCoraxTibetanus)
POLITICAL SYSTEM

For 100 years, until April, 2008, the country was ruled by the Wangchuck monarchical dynasty. The country went to the polls to elect the first democratic government in March 2008.What distinguished Bhutan’s democratic transition was that, unlike in most countries where democracy has been achieved through revolution, this change was initiated by the Throne. The people did not want it as they had been more than happy with the monarchy. But it was the King’s belief that the monarchy system of government was inherently flawed as too much depended upon a single individual.

The political change was not a sudden one either. Rather, it was a gradual, deliberate process engineered by His Majesty the Fourth King, JigmeSingyeWangchuck. It began in the early 80s when he instituted thedecentralization process by devolving power to theDzongkhagYargeyTshhogchungs(DYTs) or the district development committees. This was followed a few years later with the GeogYargeyTshhogdes(GYTs), which were the development committees in the sub-districts that made up the districts. The people elected its members, some of whom were further elected to form the DYTs. Then, elected members from the DYTs went on to represent the people in the then National Assembly, the country’s parliament or supreme legislative body.

The true altruism of His Majesty became clear in 1998. In a world where political leaders vie for every bit of power they can grab, the Fourth King dissolved the existing cabinet and devolved his executive powers to a new cabinet of ministers elected by the people.

It was at about his time that the king began a process of drafting a new constitution to democratize Bhutan. More than 30 other constitutions were studied before the draft constitution that evolved was taken by Him and the then Crown Prince (now His Majesty the Fifth King), JigmeKhesarNamgyalWangchuck, to public meetings with the people. Everyclause in every article of the consitution was discussed, and amended where deemed necessary.

In the first democratic election of 2008, the DrukPhuensumTshogpa (which translates into People’s Development Party) won a landslide victory over the People’s Democratic Party. But the institution of the monarchy continues to exist. Even though the King rules in a capacity more titular than de facto, he remains the most respected and, indeed, most beloved personalityto the Bhutanese people.

The Bhutanese Parliament is composed of two houses: the National Assembly (or the lower house) with 47 members and the National Council with 25 members ( 20 representing the 20 districts and five nominated by the king).

GROSS NATIONAL HAPPINESS

Yet another unique facet to Bhutan is thatthe socio-economic development goal is aimedat achieving not increased GNP/GDP (Gross National Product) but increased GNH (Gross National Happiness). In fact, economic development is merely one of the four recognised ‘pillars’ of the GNH model.

GNH was the brainchild of His Majesty King JigmeSingyeWangchuck who used Bhutan’s late modernisation as a position from which to learn from the mistakes of other countries. One of his conclusions from modern world history was that societies everywhere were losing touch with spirituality and tranquility that contributed to people’s happiness.

In the early 80s, the king articulated the GNH concept to stress that economic success was necessary but it alone did not hold out the promise that a society would be content. It was not a means by itself but a means to a greater end. The GNH conceptrecognizes that the ultimate goal of development should be to create an environment where it is possible for people to realise happiness. This stands in contrast to the ideology of most governments and institutions as well as academia which remain indifferent to happiness of the general people, considering it a utopian issue.

GNH is Bhutan’s own unique model of sustainable development, a manifestation of Bhutan’s collective social and cultural consciousness. It therefore seeks economic development but not at the cost of corrupting administration, degrading one’s natural environment or diluting cultural values. Good governance, environmental preservation and promotion of cultural are thus the other three pillars of the GNH model.

Think of it this way. In some countries, the sale of foodgrain and the sale of firearms are both considered good as they both contribute to the Gross Domestic Product. The Bhutanese will sell food grains but will not sell guns because a firearm carries too many associated costs that outweighits material value.

The GNH ideology has generated a great deal of interest around the world. One of the countries has drawn up even a similar model that social scientists call “subjective well-being.”

TOURISM POLICY

The tourism policy is unique as the country itself. Bhutan recognizes that tourismpromotes understanding among peoples and buildsbridges among people from around the world based on appreciation and respect for different cultures and lifestyles. Bhutan also understands that tourism is an important means of achieving socioeconomic development for developing countries like itself.

Yet the dominant belief among the people, the government and even those in the tourism industry here is that the nation must not be blinded by the lure of tourist dollars as has happened in our neighbouring countries. Unregulated and inexpensive tourism draws more foreign exchange but brings with it many costs that impact adversely on the socio-cultural front. No amount of money is worth its irreparable damage to the local environment and, more significantly for Bhutan, to its indigenous cultural practices and values.

Bhutan’s geographical location between the world’s two most populous countries makes it especially vulnerable to cultural domination. With little military or economic power, the only way Bhutan can safeguard its sovereignty is by brandishing a distinct national identity forged from strong cultural practice. Bhutan’s very future depends on the strength of its culture.

It is on the basis of such concerns that Bhutan’s tourism policy makes it mandatory for all tourists (barring those from India and Bangladesh, for whom other arrangements exist) to pay a tariff of US$ 200 a day (?). This tariff ensures that the tourists who do visit are well-to-do, well educated, or well-meaning enough to contribute and take positivelyfrom Bhutan. It also imposes an automatic ceiling on the number of visitors to the country so that foreign dilution of Bhutanese culture is, in effect, kept manageably low.

Bhutan’s tourism policy has hence been termed as ‘high value, low impact’ or high value, low volume policy. It recognizes that infrastructure and resources in tourism are limited, and are founded on the principles of sustainability, economic viability, environmental soundness and cultural acceptability.’ Low impact’ implies that tourism should not, in any way, degrade environment or dilute our culture and tradition. Such a policy may defy conventional global economic sensibility but the Bhutanese have proven that it pays well in the long run. Simply put, visitors here pay US $ 200 or more a day because they know they cannot buy the same environment and culture anywhere else, at any price.

REGIONS AND CLIMATE

Bhutan is a small, landlocked country but, even within its limited latitude, it features a wide range of altitude. From the Greater Himalayan peaks that stretch to over 7,000 meters above sea level, the land drops dramatically to fertile valleys in the Lesser Himalayan central belt, and continues on to the foothills in the south a few hundred meters above sea level.

Except for a few nomadic settlements, few people live above the treeline. The bulk of the people populate the hills and valleys of the central region which is divided in a north-south direction by the WangChhu, PunatsangChhu, MangdeChhuand KuriChhu rivers. The southern foothills, which form the industrial belt, drop sharply away from the Himalayas into large tracts of semi-tropical forest and grassland. This belt and the central highlandsare arable but most of these lands are either forested or inhabited. Only seven percent of Bhutan remains cultivated.

Bhutan’s marked range of altitude obviously allows a marked range in weather as well. The north is perennially covered with snow. Weather in the western, central and eastern Bhutan (Haa, Paro, Thimphu, Trongsa, Bumthang, Trashiyangtse, Lhuentse) has often been compared to cold European weather.

Winter lasts here from November to March. However, Wangduephodrang and Punakhaare exceptions as they are in lower valleyswhere summer is relatively hot but winter is mild. Atypical hot and humid subtropical conditions envelop southern Bhutan.

The four seasons in Bhutan have generally been compared to those of Western Europe in terms of conditions and timing. Most tourists visit Bhutan in spring (mid-March to Mid-June) and autumn (mid-September to mid-November) when less rain, mild temperatures and clear skies make sightseeing most pleasant.

Temperatures and vegetation in the altitudes between 200 and 300 metres are comparable to the moderate climate of middle Europe. The tree line lies just below 4000 metres. During winter there is little precipitation. Snow falls rarely below 2500 metres.

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