Bhutan - the last Shangri-la in no hurry to change(Letter from Thimpu)

May 18th, 2008 - 7:30 pm ICT by admin  

A file-photo of Manmohan Singh
By Murali Krishnan
Thimpu, May 18 (IANS) It’s for no reason that they call this landlocked nation ‘the last Shangri-la’. Despite its coming out party in the form of momentous elections held in March, Bhutan still zealously guards its traditional culture, identity and the environment. Foreign influences and tourism are strictly regulated and it is in no hurry to change or make that grand leap forward. A maximum of 20,000 foreign tourists are allowed to visit this quaint Himalayan kingdom of a mere 650,000 people - also called the Land of the Thunder Dragon - every year. Many plan their visit months in advance. The exception is for Indians who do not fall in this category. This is on account of the close ties both countries share. As one Bhutanese puts it, not very positively though, Bhutan has remained a ‘protectorate’ of India.

The government still follows a ‘high value, low volume’ tourism policy. Tourists have to travel with licensed Bhutanese tour operators, have licensed guides, put up in licensed accommodation, take defined routes, and pay a minimum daily rate to the exchequer.

Every foreigner is charged $220 a day, and none wince to pay that sum to get a peek into the kingdom’s steep and high mountains, criss-crossed by a network of rivers from deep valleys before draining into the Indian plains.

“It’s like having a Starbuck coffee, it does not pinch them at all,” remarks Hedum Dorji, a guide to a visiting IANS correspondent who accompanied Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh here May 16-17.

Any foreign company planning to set up business in Bhutan must have a local partner. The application for setting up an enterprise is carefully vetted by the authorities that must perforce state how much local employment the venture will generate.

It could easily be the best getaway for Indian Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss who would delight at the government’s strict no-tobacco policy. Those bringing in a fixed quota of cigarettes for personal consumption are charged a whopping 200 percent tax. Here even Indians are not spared. Sale of tobacco is strictly prohibited.

Five years back parliament passed a law to ban the sale of tobacco and prohibit smoking in public places. The former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who has been the prime mover behind Bhutan’s democratic transition, was in a bind because, say locals, he loved Cuban cigars!

But despite the ban many still smoke in the privacy of their homes, relying on cigarettes smuggled from Phuntsholing, 175 km from the Bhutanese capital or from India. Wills Navy Cut is a hot favourite.

While the authorities have clamped down on tobacco, drug addiction is rising along with rural-urban migration. The newly elected legislators are asking each of Bhutan’s 20 districts to take action.

With the holy month of Sagadana being observed in Bhutan, steeped in its Buddhist heritage, people have stopped eating pork, beef, yak meat and mutton till another week. Most are sticking to fish, soups and the national dish, ‘ema datshi’ a spicy preparation comprising mushrooms, chillies and cheese, served with red rice.

And when this religious observance gets over later this month, many are looking forward to Indian idol Prashant Tamang’s musical concert. He was scheduled to perform at the Changjiji grounds May 2 but the culture department cancelled it on the ground that foreign artists were not allowed to perform.

But there has been a subsequent rethink in government circles. Now the country’s youth - 50 percent of who are under 25 years - can look forward to a pulsating show on May 24. And shortly after Tamang, India’s upcoming rock brand, ‘Indian Ocean’, is all set to entertain Thimpu.

Are the winds of change blowing?

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