Bhutan has been the top of my travel wish list for many years now. The tiny Himalayan kingdom is nestled between India and Tibet, is so small on the map you might almost miss it. The country has only been open to outsiders for less than forty years, and while there is now television and the internet, by all accounts it has managed to retain its fascinating ancient culture and remains a country where life runs at a more sedate pace.
A beautiful example of this is the fact that Thimphu, the capital, is one of only two capital cities in the world with no traffic lights (the other is Pyongyang in North Korea – a very different nation). The story goes that a single set of lights was once erected in the main junction but they were deemed too impersonal and were quickly removed and the white gloved, gesticulating traffic officer was reinstated.
For the traveler a holiday in Bhutan, offers a bewildering array of attractions – trekking in the mountains, spotting rare wildlife, meeting friendly people, the traditional dress, the festivals, the Buddhist culture…the list goes on and on.
However, the thing I find most endearing about Bhutan is the fact that they have ditched Gross National Product as a measure of their success and replaced it with Gross National Happiness. I don’t know about you, but I find this approach to running a country rather refreshing.
The main aspects of gross national happiness (GNH) are putting environmental conservation, sustainability and the preservation of traditional culture at the centre of their policies – ideas very close to our hearts at responsibletravel.com.
Some of the results of this approach so far are that life expectancy of its citizens has doubled in the last 20 years, almost all of its children are in primary school and it is one of the few places in the world where forest cover is actually increasing. It also limits the number of tourist allowed to visit in one year in an attempt to protect itself from the degradation of indigenous culture that has become so evident in its south-east Asian neighbours.
Bhutan is rich in natural resources and does sell hydroelectric power to India and China, but it could be doing much more if its priorities lied solely in economic growth. The great thing about GNH is that all decisions are made in a holistic and conscious way, taking in the wellbeing of the citizens and the environment into account. This does not mean that they have completely done away with the idea of economic growth or progress in the more traditional sense of the idea, but it is just that these things will happen on their terms when they believe it will benefit the country as a whole. An increase in wealth will undoubtedly make the poorest of people in Bhutan decidedly happier, but the government is being careful that this doesn’t come at the cost of the environment or their culture.
Bhutan is a small country and of course cannot solve the climatic and environmental problems of the whole world, but it is leading by example. GNH is now beginning to gain international interest, being discussed at the last UN climate change conference in Doha. Even our own government in the UK is taking notice. They have begun to think about measuring the wellbeing of the nation too. The less said about the £3 million they spent on coming up with four questions to ask us in the next census the better, but at least they are thinking about it!
There have been critics of this approach touting it as inherently unmeasurable, and I am not naive enough to believe the country is devoid of all problems. However, in a time when the financial and political systems we have devised for ourselves in the West are showing considerable flaws, we could learn a lot from this humble, unassuming Asian kingdom that puts more emphasis on the smile on peoples’ faces than the blind pursuit of economic growth.
Need a little more Gross National Happiness in your life? Then see our Bhutan holiday pages.