Photo: Bhutanese children smiling

Brother and sister in Bhutan’s Phobjikha Valley.

Photograph by Ian Chow

By Costas Christ

From the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

From a forest of wild rhododendrons, a cool wind greets me, bringing the wails of Tibetan horns and the chants of monks drifting from the ancient monastery in Phobjikha Valley below. Like the rest of Bhutan, this valley remained mostly isolated from the outside world until barely two decades ago, when a tourist quota system that permitted only a trickle of visitors was lifted. Ever since, Western travelers have rushed in to embrace the last remaining Himalayan Buddhist kingdom as a modern day Shangri-la (a utopian image the Bhutanese do not share).

Bhutan was first thrust into the world spotlight back in the 1970s when the king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, announced that his country would abandon the materialistic metric of gross national product (GNP) as a measure of development success and replace it with its own model, Gross National Happiness (GNH). Though some media reports sniggered at the concept, Bhutan not only reaffirmed its belief in GNH as the right path for its kingdom but has recently notched it up. It is calling upon the rest of the world to adopt a new global economic paradigm in which well-being and happiness are also counted when measuring a country’s progress.

“The present GNP development model no longer makes economic sense because it compels boundless growth on a planet with limited resources,” Bhutan’s prime minister, Jigmi Y. Thinley, told more than 600 attendees gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York last April. I was among them, and I decided to see for myself if GNH really is a viable prescription for our troubled world or just a one-off experiment suited only to a country that has never been colonized and has a largely homogeneous culture.

In Thimphu, Bhutan’s miniature-size capital and home to the current king, I met with Dasho Sangay Wangchuk, a member of the royal family. “What we mean by GNH is striking a balance between the material, the emotional, and the spiritual well-being of our people. It is based on four guiding principles: equitable economic growth, preservation of cultural heritage, protecting the environment, and good governance,” he told me. I realized that the Bhutanese definition of “happiness” goes far beyond the widespread and more prosaic understanding of the word as a passing mood.

The country has developed 72 indicators to measure its GNH, from free healthcare access, to education for girls, to sustainable agriculture that enhances biodiversity. The prime minister has appointed a director of GNH to monitor progress. Nobel laureates, prominent scientists, and some of the world’s leading economists have endorsed Bhutan’s efforts to define a new global paradigm, and the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted Bhutan’s resolution, “Happiness: Towards a Holistic Approach to Development.” Not bad for a country of 700,000 people. So what’s not to like?

Well, for one thing, Bhutan hasn’t actually achieved the visionary goals it is prescribing for the rest of the world. It faced international criticism for the forced exile of some 100,000 Bhutanese citizens of Nepalese origin back in the 1990s. The most recent national survey to measure GNH, conducted in 2010, revealed that only 41 percent of Bhutanese were classified as happy. Alcohol abuse is a rising health problem, and there are concerns about business corruption (albeit small-scale). Though not actively enforced, a national decree requires all Bhutanese to wear traditional dress (hand-woven kiras for women and ghos for men); meanwhile, a new generation of youth clamors for Western fashions and iPhones. Bhutan, which did not have a single international hotel ten years ago, plans to open the country to more tourists—from 64,000 last year to 150,000 annually by 2015.

The Bhutanese admit that there is some disconnect between what is taking place and their intention to create a happy and more sustainable society: “We need to do a better job of getting our own house in order, including clearer guidelines for tourism’s expansion,” says Karma Tshering of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forests. Whether more tourism will be good or bad for Bhutan remains to be seen. The changes, like the rest of the country’s development efforts, will be measured against GNH standards.

Despite the contradictions, I did not encounter one citizen who questioned GNH as the right path for the country and perhaps for the rest of the world. It would be overly simplistic to conclude that Bhutan is not doing enough to walk its talk. More than 50 percent of the country, home to some of the world’s rarest species, including snow leopards, tigers, and one-horned rhinos, is protected as national parks and reserves. Ninety-nine percent of the children are in school. Women are empowered both in business and in their communities. And Bhutan voluntarily became a constitutional democracy, with its first elections held in 2008.

And there is something else, something ineffable but powerful. There was a feeling I got in that little country I have not felt in the other 130 countries I have visited. Something deep, meaningful, even transformative is happening there. Not happiness, exactly, but whatever it is, it just might change the world.

Editor at large Costas Christ writes about the changing world of travel. E-mail your comments to Travel_Talk@ngs.org.

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