Last week Bhutan held only its third general election. And for the third time in a row, the Bhutanese people voted in a different party. And though this election got little coverage in the west, we could all benefit from paying a bit more attention to how the remote Himalayan nation country develops.
Tourism in particular, could benefit from studying three unique initiatives that Bhutan is famous for. First, and the one for which it is best known, is Gross National Happiness. Unlike every other country on earth, the Himalayan mountain kingdom does not use Gross National Product (GDP), as the key measure of its society’s success. Instead, it measures health, education, and ecological diversity and resilience and combines the statistics to assess the country’s overall well-being.
Consider what the tourism industry could learn from this approach, and what benefit it could do through supporting and promoting it. Tourism is probably the industry that focuses most on how we spend our ‘economically unproductive’ time away from work, GDP is therefore a particularly inappropriate measure for tourism, since most of the qualitative measures that define a good holiday are not counted. A forest adds nothing to GDP while it stands, absorbing carbon dioxide and providing a place where biodiversity thrives and people can walk and relax. Chop it down and sell the wood, and GDP goes up. To try to define tourism’s importance by highlighting its contribution to GDP is to miss what may well be its most important contributions to the wellbeing of our societies. If tourism is to fulfil its potential, it needs instead to be engaging actively in such initiatives, as well as in related emerging debates around universal income, shorter working weeks or the UK Green Party’s September announcement proposing that freetime should be the mark of societal success, rather than GDP.
Secondly, and long before overtourism hit the headlines, Bhutan set stringent controls on tourists, imposing a $250 dollar a day fee on international tourist arrivals in high season. As a recent article on Phys.org makes clear, the controls have helped ‘keep at bay the kind of boom that has ravaged other scenic hotspots’.
Thirdly, and less well known then either of these two measures, is that when the country moved to become a democracy, it enshrined in its constitution that 60 percent of Bhutan must be covered in forest. They country has resisted chasing short term gain through selling off its natural assets to logging companies, and as a result can claim to be the only country in the world that absorbs more carbon than it is responsible for emitting. In 2015, it set the world record for most trees planted in an hour. Bhutan reverses global warming.
To truly understand the significance of these three initiatives, however, and to see how the tourism industry as a whole could learn from them, it helps not to see them as three separate issues at all. Rather, we need to see how they are all facets of the same approach. First, it is an approach grounded in the understanding that the wellbeing of the country’s people and the health of its forests are inextricably linked. Researchers have shown, for example, how simply seeing trees and the sky, as well as hearing birdsong, results in higher levels of mental wellbeing. As I have written about before, in Japan the practice of forest bathing is officially supported by the government, as the practice, which involves hiking, tasting natural ingredients, has been scientifically proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, and even boost immune system function. In the heavily forested Finland, their National Parks website has sections that highlight the wellbeing benefits of hiking in the parks, stating: “Nature helps the body to recover from stress and the brain to work in the best possible way.” And a couple of weeks ago it was reported that NHS Shetland is prescribing birdwatching and nature walks to patients as a cure.
Bhutan’s tourism can then be fitted into this model, because if you are seeking high value tourists able to afford a $250 a day surcharge, it helps if you a) have a pristine environment for them to come to, and b) have a population who welcome the arriving tourists as they see them as supporting their twin goals of climate resilience and societal wellbeing. Done Bhutan’s way, tourism is no longer an extractive industry, but a restorative one.
So far so good. Unfortunately Bhutan’s positive example is cursed by the rest of the world’s inability to follow its path. For while the country may be absorbing more CO2 than it is emitting, global warming doesn’t care. AFP reports Tenzin Wangmo, Bhutan’s chief environment officer saying that: “Even the snowfall pattern has changed. Earlier it would snow for a few days, now it doesn’t even last a day,” adding, “Climate change is not in our control. We haven’t done anything but we are paying a heavy price.”
This is why we need to look at all these three issues – wellbeing, climate change and overtourism – in the same frame. Bhutan did not cause the rise in temperatures. But it is feeling the impacts, damaging its natural environment and its people’s wellbeing. Likewise, when tourism proposes solutions to overtourism that don’t address the overall numbers taking to the skies, it falls victim to the same curse. You might solve a local problem by dispersing tourists somewhere else or by spreading the time they arrive over the course of a week, month or year. But if the overall numbers keep growing then the impact on the climate of all these well-managed, widely distributed tourists will keep growing too.
This will be an incredibly difficult conversation to have, probably the hardest. Because the overall number of tourists is going to keep growing, and it is right that it does. When people are lifted out of poverty, and gain disposable income, of course they want to discover what is out there. This should be encouraged.
But at the same time, what are we doing about the inevitable and growing climate impacts of this? Where for example, is the conversation about the fact that last month EasyJet was one of four companies referred to the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) over their failure to discuss climate change trends and risks in their reports to shareholders? Or about the fact that this year Sweden went it alone and imposed a climate tax on aviation flying into and out of the country? Why aren’t we even developing a coherent position on offsets?
Like overtourism, these individual stories should be seen as indicators of what’s to come. Numbers are growing. Impacts are rising. More legal challenges will come. Prices will go up. The longer we ignore these indicators, the harder it is going to be to respond. We could start by looking to learn from Bhutan.