My first meal in the land of Gross National Happiness was prepared by 5 diamond star chef Mario Fernandez, of Aman Resorts. When asked whether GNH is indeed a measurement of one of the world’s happiest countries, or a load of PR bunk, he said: “The people here can spend all day with a rock and be happy. No need for internet, iPhone, iPad, no Play Stations here.” Over the next week, I came to agree with him: the citizens of Bhutan don’t have much in the way of worldly possessions, but they seem serene, calm and at peace with themselves. We could learn a lot from them about slowing down the pace, appreciating the natural beauty of the topography, and valuing each other for the soul more than for talent and success.
I wanted to visit Bhutan because it is one of few countries–especially in the boomtown otherwise known as Asia– where maintaining the environment and eco-responsibility is considered even more important than growing the economy. I subsequently focused on the snow-capped mountains, rice paddies, natural waterfalls, miles of bike-friendly trails and roads, temples and monasteries that make you wonder how ancient societies ever got the building materials up to their mountain perches.
The Gross National Happiness is not without its detractors. Enter Rieki Crins, an anthropologist who specializes in Bhutan and has been involved with the country for 25 years, now she is doing an impact investment project. Quick to burst the happiness bubble, she has a mixed report on the GNH.
“Many journalists fall victim to the idea of GNH, it is very seductive on the surface. The reality is we have our share of modern-day problems such as drug use, alcoholism, and a high rate of suicide given our population of only 750,000,” says Crins. “GNH is good marketing for Bhutan, but as the population gets younger, they are moving to the city, sporting hoodies and jeans, active on Facebook and using cell phones while leaving their villages behind. They also want to participate in the global economy like their counterparts in other Asian countries. There is a serious shortage of jobs and prospects for growing the economy beyond tourism are not favorable.”
I met a fascinating couple that offers a different perspective on Bhutan’s future. “What will happen to the rural way of life? Who will take care of the village elders? Who will be farmers to maintain the agricultural culture?” wondered Raoul Witteveen, a venture capitalist at Laaken Asset Management N.V., who specializes in sustainable companies.
“Sustainable development can be the answer for Bhutan,” asserts his wife, Bettina, a multi-media artist and photographer who has spent many years in and out of Bhutan. She gave the examples of two special Bhutanese products that would have strong demand elsewhere. “There are crops found only in the mountains that have intense healing powers. They could be marketed at a very high margin. They also have a delicious and potent whiskey that is native to Bhutan that would play well with the current trend toward craft brewed spirits. These are but two examples of ways that Bhutan can participate in the world economy without sacrificing its environmental purity.”
While Bhutan’s young people may be getting the itch to move to the city, some traditions remain strong. One such characteristic that seems uniform across different parts of the country is the traditional Bhutanese architecture, otherwise known as dzong. Some young people are still sporting traditional threads. Women wear Kiras, ankle length wrap dresses fastened at the waist with a belt and fastened at the shoulders with silver brooches called Koma. The men also don long robes, called Gho, that tie at the waist by a fabric belt. This particular dress is traditionally worn during festivals, Chinese New Year, and weddings.
Admittedly, Bhutan is hard to get to. And it is not inexpensive, despite the strong dollar. As my friend Dick Simon, who first visited Bhutan with his family 15 years ago, said, “You don’t necessarily have to go the deluxe Aman route to enjoy a visit to Bhutan.” However, be aware that there is a $250 per day minimum spend requirement no matter what level of lodging you choose. (Interestingly, India’s tourists are exempt from this charge.) And when you do participate in the Aman multi-resort program, your daily visa charge is already included. Competing ultra-luxury provider Six Senses is currently constructing a similar multi-location resort, which will come on stream in 2016. Six Senses resorts will be sustainability and wellness focused with the architecture integrated into the natural environment.
One word to the wise: the mountain roads are very dangerous, and have no railings in many cases. We already talked about the flights. And the cost. Thus tourist travel to Bhutan is not for the timid, inexperienced or couch potato variety. But for those who are “Asia-philes” or part of the environmental cognoscenti, a visit to Bhutan is the holy grail.