Bhutan is a small, remote and impoverished nation at the eastern end of the Himalayas, known by its people as the ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’. It has breathtaking mountain scenery and a rich culture, which is fiercely guarded under the guiding philosophy of ‘gross national happiness’, influenced by the dominant religion, Buddhism, which tries to achieve a balance between the spiritual and material aspects of life.
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Bhutan is a landlocked country with an area spanning 38,394 km² – slightly smaller than Switzerland. Bhutan is nestled between is giant neighbours in China and India – the capital of Bhutan is Thimphu. The terrain is absolutely stunning; ranging from the mountainous Himalayas, lower-lying foothills, semi-tropical forest, savannah grassland and bamboo jungles. As of 2015 the population was 772,000 people.
The King of Bhutan decided not to follow neighbouring Nepal’s example and allow unrestricted tourism, with all its detrimental effects on local culture and environment. Bhutan only began to open up to outsiders in the 1970s, and today tourist numbers in Bhutan are limited by the relatively high cost of visiting this country and the fact that it is highly regulated. Individual travellers are treated as small groups and are accompanied everywhere by a guide.
In keeping with the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s policy of “High Value. Low Impact” tourism, a Minimum Daily Package is required for tourists. Visitors must book and pay for all services – transport, guide, accommodation, meals and admission costs – in advance for a set fee (this restriction excludes Indian, Bangladeshi and Maldivian passport holders). The profits from tourism pay for free healthcare and education for all Bhutanese. For more information see this link.
The determination to maintain the purity of Bhutanese culture, culminated in the 1990s in ethnic Nepalese migrant workers being ordered to adopt Drukpa culture and prove citizenship entitlement based on residency. Large numbers who did not qualify have been in refugee settlements in Nepal since then.
In 2014, Bhutan received ~68,000 international tourists, which was a 29 percent increase on the previous year. As well as visiting the many Mahayana Buddhist monasteries and picturesque towns with wooden chalet-style houses, trekking in the mountains is increasingly popular. Much of the appeal of Bhutan must lie in the fact that traditional culture has been preserved to an unusual degree. The modern world was kept at bay in Bhutan until the 1970s – the wearing of national dress is mandatory, and television and mobile phones were only introduced in 1999. The national sport of archery is still the most popular male pastime.
Ethical Travel Issues and advice
Ethical Photography: Travelling presents an opportunity to photograph in lots of different destinations and situations, but sometimes there may be culturally sensitive issues to think about before reaching for the camera or other photo-taking device. There are lots of people in the world who do not have clean water, electricity, schooling or enough to eat, let alone access to mobile telephones, the internet and printed media, so they have no idea where their photograph may end up or how it could be used. Sadly, in this day and age, child prostitution, child trafficking and other crimes against children are facilitated via the Internet, and photography can play an unwitting and innocent role. Photography and its use is no longer straight forward, so perhaps it is time to stop and think a little about the ethics of photography.
Taking photos of friendly local people is a highlight for many travellers and photographers. Smiles are universal ways to engage, as is showing people the photo you just took of them. If you show an interest in their work or ask them questions, they’ll be happy to have their picture taken. In some touristy places it has become common for people to ask for money for their photos to be taken. Do as you wish, but a photo of someone you shared a laugh with may have a better lasting impression than one you paid for. Don’t forget the same holds true for any porters and guides that may help you along the way. Take an interest in them and you’ll be rewarded with more great photo opportunities.