Wednesday, 16 May 2012

POV: Bhutan...No More Shangri-La?

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Is Bhutan no longer the "Shangri-La"?

I've traveled to Bhutan no less than 5 times over the past 12 years, leading photo expeditions that were extremely popular and were well attended. These photo expeditions were especially enjoyable, provided its participants and myself a solid inventory of photographs of Bhutan's unique culture, traditions and religious festivals, and were trouble-free.

However, over my last three photo expeditions in 2006, 2008 and 2009 I noticed changes...some subtle and others not so subtle. Tourism had progressively become a huge business. The guides and fixers we had on these photo expeditions have become tour operators themselves, luxury hotels chains (such as the Aman Resorts with already 5 properties in the country...Thimpu, Paro, Gangtey, Punakha and Bumthang, with the Taj and Uma chains) are building properties, and there's now a domestic airport in central Bumthang for those who want to fly from Paro, instead of driving for a couple of days.

Shane Green, a photographer who's joining my forthcoming photo workshop in Vietnam, just returned from Bhutan along with his wife, and emailed me his impressions, and they confirm what I have sensed and noticed over the past few years.

Yes, Bhutan is still a wonderful country to visit, and the Bhutanese are some of the most gracious people one can hope to meet, however exploding consumerism, modernisation and urbanisation are taking their toll. Thimpu seems to be a huge building site, with many leaving their rural living to make a living in its capital.

In 2009, I recall having a cappuccino with a Thimpu resident in a Starbucks look-alike cafe and then playing snookers (and drinking too much beer) at a sort of watering hole with some of my group, amongst Bhutanese teenagers. And yet, a few days before, dinner in a Jakar hole-in-the-wall, consisted of Tibetan momos cooked the traditional way in a dingy smoky kitchen.

It wasn't too long ago that most, if not all, Bhutanese women had their hair in pageboy cuts, but with the advent of television bringing with it 46 channels exposing people to Indian (and others) programs, they started to grow it, following the Bollywood fashion.

Shane went as far as remote Ura, in the central Bhutan, where I don't recall seeing any tourists there as recently as 2009...and yet now, tourists outnumbered the local audience at its annual festival.

Is it over for Bhutan as a specialty destination? I hope not...but I don't see how its tourism authorities can retain the country's cachet against an encroaching modernism, especially with a population that seeks a more affluent standard of living brought about by tourists and other sources.

After all, look at what's happening in Siem Reap...and Angkor!

I predict it won't be long before the Ugyencholing elderly man in this post's photograph will be holding a Blackberry or a Nokia...if he doesn't have it already.