Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Philosophy Creates Eco-Traveler Paradise

Bhutan’s unique approach to sustainability is preserving its lands as a pristine paradise, even as it reaps the economic benefits of regular tourism. - BY PAMELA GRANT

Bhutan cannot be called a well-kept secret because global organizations like the United Nations recognize the country’s holistic and successful approach to sustainable development. Sandwiched between India and China, the country committed to sustainable development and controlled tourism over two decades ago, resulting in a carbon-neutral country with a pristine natural landscape. Few places on the earth have accomplished the level of sustainability success that Bhutan can honestly claim, and studying its unique metrics may be the key to understanding exactly how it all works.

Happiness and Well-Being of People

To understand Bhutan’s holistic approach to environmental sustainability, think in terms beyond preserving the natural landscape. Bhutan embraces a Gross National Happiness (GNH) philosophy. This embraces nine areas, which are health, well-being, time use, education, good governance, cultural diversity, community vitality, ecological diversity, and living standards. A carbon-neutral pristine environment directly influences most of the nine areas. The GNH holistic philosophy has four pillars. They are sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental conservation, preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance embracing transparency and accountability.

All of this adds up to opportunities to visit stunning landscapes in the Eastern Himalayas. Tall, snow-capped mountains, meandering rivers, dense forests, ancient cultural sites, and modern festivals enable immersion in natural environmental and cultural experiences. There are two concepts for ecotravelers planning their trips to Bhutan. One is that Bhutan has a “High-Value, Low-Impact” tourism policy that controls the number of visitors at any time to minimize the environmental footprint. The second is that community-based tourism is encouraged so visitors can engage with Bhutan’s people in cultural immersion and local communities can participate in and benefit from tourism. Establishing carbon neutrality is a remarkable achievement for a whole country of any size. Bhutan defines carbon neutrality as neutralizing greenhouse emissions with forest-based carbon sequestration. The country’s forests, which cover about 75% of the land, sequester approximately nine million tons of carbon annually, approximately four times more than the economy produces. The country is transitioning to a renewable energy grid, protecting biodiversity, exporting renewable energy, and taking other steps to support a green economy.

Gift to the Earth

Ecotravelers are in for a genuine treat because the country has abundant biodiversity, a pristine environment, and friendly people. There are 10 protected areas that contain four National Parks, four wildlife sanctuaries, and one Strict Nature Reserve with no human development. Wangchuck Centennial National Park in the north Himalayas is the largest park, and features alpine meadows, blue pine, four rivers, glaciers, and a spectacular array of 134 bird species and 23 large mammal species, including the Snow Leopard, leopards, Himalayan black bear, and the rare Tibetan wolf.

Jigme Dorji National Park is the second largest national park and is located in the northwest. This park also has four rivers and rich tree and plant diversity. It is even richer in biodiversity with mammals, reptiles, birds, and butterflies. This is the park where tigers were first sighted above 4000 meters, sharing their habitat with snow leopards.

These are just two examples of the many protected areas in the country's center, but of particular interest is the way Bhutan uses biological corridors to connect separate protected land areas. Bhutan calls these a “Gift to the Earth.” The corridors promote the unimpeded flow of wildlife while supporting expected behavior changes as the animals adapt to climate change. Besides the land-roving wildlife, there are about 700 bird species to spot, many rare. The iridescent colors of the Himalayan Monal (pheasant) that can fly but prefers to walk are beautiful. There is the crimson red and black Satyr Tragopan, Black-necked Crane, Fire-tailed Myzornis, and many other colorful birds.

As would be expected, hiking is popular. There are easy trails and steep trails requiring overnight camping, short trails like the 3.5-mile Tiger’s Nest Trail and multi-day long trails like the 252-mile Trans Bhutan Trail. You can go whitewater river rafting on the Mo Chhu River, try fly fishing for trout, relax in the hot springs in Punakha and Bumthang, or if really adventurous, try paragliding off a Kamshet plateau.

Enjoy the People and the Culture

Of course, you must explore the culture by visiting historical sites and spending time with local people. The ancient ruin of Drukgyel Dzong is a fort built in the 17th century in the upper Paro valley. It was built to guard the approach from Tibet and is well-preserved with its original massive masonry walls and creative defense devices. Built in 1501, the Tamzhing Monastery in the Bumthang District is the original home of sacred dances still danced during festivals and contains mural paintings. It was the principal seat of the prime Bhutanese disciple of the school of Tantric Buddhism, Pem Lingpa. There are cultural sites like these throughout Bhutan.

Numerous eco-friendly hotels and lodges with beautiful views are available and are good locations for starting your adventures. You can also get adventurous with food. Ema Dashi is the national dish. It is made with Yak cheese, oil, garlic, onion, chilis, and tomatoes and eaten with red rice. Jasha Maru is a very spicy dish consisting of chicken, onion, garlic, tomato, ginger, and onions served with red rice. In the spirit of sustainability, food is not wasted. Zow Shungo is made with leftover vegetables and red rice. Many traditional dishes use meat, like Phaksha Paa, a street dish with stir-fried pork and vegetables cooked in butter or oil with chilies and spices. Bhutanese eat sausages, dumplings, turnip leaf soup, buckwheat noodles, and many more interesting and often spicy foods. The capital city of Bhutan is Thimphu. Dating back to the 13th century, it is considered the cultural center and contains the Tashichho Dzong, where the King of Bhutan's keeps his throne room. The city is the location of the annual religious festival, Thimphu Tshechu. There is a giant gold Buddha Dordenma statue, monasteries, museums, art galleries, and the Motithang Takin Preserve, a wildlife reserve for the national animal.

Ready for the Unknown Ecological Future

From the lowest valleys to the highest Himalayan peaks, Bhutan delivers an ecological paradise in every direction, no matter what you choose to do. This remarkable country is doing its part to maintain the quality of life for its residents by minimizing greenhouse emissions. Eco-travelers adore Bhutan for all the right reasons.