I have often wondered why Bhutan appeals a lot to foreign visitors. Why is that most tourists leave our country totally enamoured and with lasting impressions of our land and people – despite not staying in the best of hotels, and driving around in pothole-ridden roads and eating chilis whole day? Why does Bhutan regularly show up as one of the top destinations in the world? The latest is by the global travel publishing company, the Lonely Planet.
Here is a perspective from an avid traveller – me.
In Bhutan, we often talk about our unique culture and unspoilt nature as the selling points. Yes, we have some colorful traditions. So do other countries – and each culture is unique in its own way. We have high Himalayan mountains, for sure. However, the peaks in Nepal are taller, while many in Switzerland are even more gorgeous. As for the unspoilt nature, tropical rainforests in our own neighbourhood are bigger and as pristine.
Then, what is really magnetic about Bhutan? If there is one thing that I have to pinpoint to, it is the spontaneity of our people – the human element – our genuineness. So I disagree with some eminent writers who have, in the past, pointed out that we are being hypocrites. We are not. We are, as Lonely Planet best describes, “kind-hearted people” who are inherently nice to strangers.
Lessons from Bali and Taiwan
Two places that I have been visiting in recent times are Bali and Taiwan. Both these destinations boast of a very robust tourism industry. Taiwan has some mind-dazzling achievements to show off too. Their high-tech industry has also translated into fast and convenient public services making everything from applying for visas to booking air tickets to paying even street shops traveller-friendly. The high-speed rail and the roads are world-class. The temples and landscapes, and especially the paddy fields and tea plantations, are simply poetic. And, of course, the cuisine is one of the best that I have come across.
Bali, of course, is Bali.
Nonetheless, more than the stunning natural or man-made beauty, it is the ordinary people that will ultimately draw or drive away the visitors. From my experiences in these two places, I realized how important it is for the locals to be welcoming, friendly and helpful to outsiders. It is something missing from many countries I have visited. From the moment you step out of your flight you don’t feel unwelcome. On my first visit to Taiwan, I travelled extensively and all I can say is that I simply basked in the warmth of hospitality and smiles wherever I went. Nobody was even close to being rough on me. I interacted with indigenous people as well as street vendors, with young students, with professors and with people in upscale tourist markets, malls and Michelin-stared restaurants. Wherever I went, I felt accepted and at peace.
More than the stunning natural or man-made beauty, it is the ordinary people that will ultimately draw or drive away the visitors
On the second visit, this time to Fu Jen University, one evening I was scanning down the countless eateries and cafes when a young professor who was at one of my lectures cycled towards me. “Hey Dorji! Are you looking for something?” “Yes, a place to eat”, I said. “Okay, follow me”, he suggested and diverted from where he was going to where I was heading for. When we finally found a place he also insisted that he pay for my meal – although he already had his dinner. He added that he learnt many things from me and that it is an honour for him to do that. He left shortly after my food arrived. I was so moved by his gesture.
And coming to Bali, one of the most exquisite destinations on Earth, last summer, on our return hike from the sunrise trek to Mt. Batur, my daughter who had twisted her ankle was struggling to walk the last couple of kilometers of the dirt road – when a construction worker stopped his work and came zooming on his motorcycle. “You are fit. She is not. I pity her. I take her to the van”, he offered. I later caught up with him and thank him and reciprocated his kind gesture. Another time I had forgotten my purse after I had eaten in a road-side stall. The woman just laughed her life out seeing me embarrassed and told me that it was okay. I could return anytime with the money I owed her. I have many stories of local generosity in these two places that I can write a book.
All in all, Taiwan may be advanced and awesome, and Bali may be blissful and beautiful, but it is thanks to such personal accounts and tales of random acts of kindness that an outsider ultimately feels at home – and talks nice about a place. Even in this age of TripAdvisor and Google Maps, word-of-mouth will continue to be the most influential form of advertising and marketing. There is still power in human speech.
Taking Tourism to the Top?
There is so much talk about taking tourism to the top in Bhutan, which, of course, is welcome. There are also the government flagship programs in several pre-selected districts to increase the tourist inflow. Like any other government plans, I am sure there are constructions and hardware involved. My view is that, tourism in Bhutan will eventually succeed or fail depending on how ordinary Bhutanese people treat the visitors. For, nothing can substitute the experiences with the locals, and their genuine smiles and spontaneity, which are still very vibrant in Bhutan – just as in Bali and in Taiwan.
So, what can we do? The government will do what it has to do. As a society, we have a greater responsibility. As academics, the socio-cultural and educational fundaments from where such altruistic behaviours emerge should be researched and mainstreamed. This is a long shot, I know. As parents and educators, the traditional socialisation process of respect, altruism and selfless service towards others – and the urge to help someone in need or a complete stranger, should be sustained and strengthened among our younger generation. Lastly, as journalists and social media influencers, the feel-good narratives and stories of human spirit should be brought out in the public domain and celebrated.
Never mind that just across the border our fellow travellers and truckers are not accorded the same kind of treatment. Let the law deal with that. As for us, we are who we are and we should remain that way – and persist.
Only then I see tourism not only going to the “top” but staying there as well.
(The original article appeared in Kuensel, the national newspaper of Bhutan on Nov 2, 2019. Click here for the online version)