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Walkabout: Bhutan Takes the High Road
This tiny Himalayan kingdom wants to preserve its culture

November 24, 2000
Web posted at 2:10 p.m. Hong Kong time, 1:10 a.m. EDT

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From afar, there's little to separate Nepal and the kingdom of Bhutan. The Himalayan countries are squeezed between behemoths China and India, are beautiful, and have rich Buddhist traditions. And it seems there's little reason to ponder the two tiny and poor countries that have little impact on the world stage.

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But up close, it becomes clear that the two are mirror images -- and are symbolic of a coming crisis in tourism. Walk through the streets of Kathmandu and it's difficult to not be bowled over by street kids trying to sell you hash, Swiss army knives and Tiger Balm. In Thimphu, Bhutan's capital, you'd have to explain the concept of street kids, and hash is tough to buy. In Kathmandu, your eating choices include several provinces worth of French cuisine, a couple of sushi options, and a cafe that does a delightful -- if vaguely dubious -- blackened cod. In Thimphu, the palate is a bit more restricted, consisting of that global favorite, Bhutanese cuisine.

The difference between Nepal and Bhutan is that the first has let the world in, while the second has largely kept the world out. Last year, the more than 500,000 visitors to Nepal largely went where they wished and could survive on $10 a day if they had to. The heinous results are predictable. Despite the backpacker creed of "you don't change Nepal, Nepal changes you," low-rent visitors have trampled all over Nepal's culture and done irreparable harm to the environment, especially along the banana pancake trail known as the Annapurna Circuit.

Bhutan had a big year last year, receiving a whopping 7,158 tourists -- about 30% from the United States -- and took in $8.7 million. Visitors are required to book through one of about 30 sanctioned agents and must follow an officially approved itinerary; costs are covered by a minimum daily tariff of $200.

Talking to Bhutanese tour operators at the World Travel Mart in London last week, I asked why their country had made the choices they had about outsiders. Why not just open the country up and let the market work it out? I may as well have suggested they depose the king. "We can't open the floodgates and allow all kinds of people in here, like they do in Nepal," said Dago Beda, director of Etho Metho, a Thimphu-based tour company. "Our fragile mountain ecology could never survive that kind of pressure."

And while it's a bit late for Nepal (and Phuket and Boracay and Kuta and Maui and...) to learn by Bhutan's example, it doesn't have to be for the rest of us.

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