Tourism in 'The last Shangri-La'

The Kingdom of Bhutan opens itself to a limited number of tourists. Paul Strickland is one of those teaching the locals the trade of hospitality.

Royal weddings tend to be lavish, high society affairs, with officials and royalty from all over the world. That wasn’t the case for Bhutan. When King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck married Queen Jetsun Pema in 2011, they did so with just 57 international guests in attendance. One of them was Paul Strickland, a lecturer in hospitality and tourism at La Trobe University.

“The low number of international invites to a royal wedding isn’t out of character for Bhutan,” says Strickland. “Few people are allowed to visit and the country prefers it that way. It’s at the point where being granted permission to visit Bhutan is a rare experience to even seasoned travellers.”

The Kingdom of Bhutan was closed to tourists until 1974, and since then it has maintained a highly regulated tourism industry, overseen by the Bhutan Tourism Corporation. Tourist entry to Bhutan is capped at 100,000 a year, costing a minimum of 250 USD per person, per day. The fee covers most of the visit, including accommodation, three meals a day, a designated guide, entry to attractions, and a driver.

Most tourists are prevented from travelling independently in the kingdom and activities are controlled, with permits and itinerary needing to be cleared ahead of time. This makes visiting Bhutan a premium activity, and those that see the high-altitude monasteries anddzongs are amongst the most seasoned and wealthiest of travellers.

Paul Strickland“Bhutan is conscious of the good and bad side of tourism and has seen the effects it’s had across the Himalayas,” says Strickland. “Mass tourism can make an economy boom but destroy the culture and environment if left unchecked. By controlling entry to the country they can target only the high-end visitors, and mitigate undesirable elements.”

Early visitors to Bhutan experienced the simple conditions of a developing country. Exit surveys at the time had found a lack of satisfaction with amenities provided, especially given the price. Basics such as hot water, electricity, ice for drinks, desirable food, and electric blankets were expected as a minimum, and not delivered.

“By courting the affluent traveller Bhutan has set a high level for visitor expectations that they weren’t able to deliver,” says Strickland. “Wealthy tourists expect a higher level of luxuries as a minimum, when most of the country don’t have even the most basic amenities.”

“Meat was imported from India on unrefrigerated trucks and needed to be heavily seasoned to mask the decay. This type of roughing it might do for a backpacker, but if the country wanted to limit tourism to high-end customers they needed to level up the services.”

Mr Strickland has been travelling to Bhutan since 2012, educating hotel supervisors in hospitality practises and procedures. He found he had to design courses beginning with the basics.

“Most of the students were themselves living without the basics of running water, electricity or indoor plumbing, and here they were being educated on how to operate electric blankets,” says Strickland. “I had to work from scratch, and also design to teach within the limitations of what resources were available.”

“I found the Bhutanese students to be hardworking, but they’d never experienced the living they were being taught, and had difficulty grasping why these luxuries would be important. There was a real learning curve for them to work through.”

Working with Bhutan’s Royal Institute of Tourism and Hospitality (RITH), Strickland taught a management level program of 30 students a year for a two year course. Students would graduate and be better equipped to instruct their staff on operating to a higher level of service in the tourism industry.

“Bhutan authorities instigated a rule where all accommodation of less than a three-star standard rating was de-registered, so the incentive to provide higher quality facilities and service are real,” says Strickland. “A Bhutanese can make triple the average income working in basic hospitality jobs, so these positions are in high demand.”

In the years since he began teaching in Bhutan Strickland has seen the entire industry evolve, going from poor and negative service standards to a level of 90% guest satisfaction and minimal complaints. Close to 200 students have graduated from his courses, and they have gone on to effectively instruct their own staff in hospitality practices.

“The tourism industry in Bhutan has seen significant change in the past few years, and I’m glad for the part I’ve played in it,” says Strickland. “For now Bhutan remains the Shangri-La, but it will be interesting to see if that changes in the future.”