Bhutan, soft-power strategy with singularity

Bhutan, the small Himalayan Kingdom sandwiched between China and India, has developed some remarkable soft-power strategies that differ radically from what is implemented elsewhere, driven by the ambition to make itself known whilst fiercely preserving its traditions and way of life. A film, "Lunana, a yak in the classroom", and a new tourism policy - quite ambivalent -, remind us that soft power is a very relevant tool for promoting a country, as the "Gross National Happiness" policy has already proved.

Gross National Happiness, marketing excellence

In 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the 4th Druk Gyalpo, the "dragon king" of Bhutan, who had just ascended the throne (at the age of 17), used the notion of Gross National Happiness (GNH) for the first time. This concept, which was completely new, replaced the idea of GDP to measure the country's growth, and is based on economic development that is necessarily correlated with resource conservation and better harmony with Buddhist spiritual values.

In Bhutan, which at that time was opening up to the world after years of closure, there was a great risk of seeing the rich traditions of a country unlike any other disappear in favour of a standardised modernity. Gross National Happiness was fully written into the constitution in 2008, and remains a powerful vector, in strategy and communication, in everything the country undertakes. This has, among other things, enabled Bhutan to make itself heard in the concert of nations, bringing notoriety, since the concept was so unexpected in a world where development is measured mainly through wealth produced.

In a way, GNH can be seen as a brilliant soft-power strategy. Soft-power is the policy of 'soft' influence that allows a country to be promoted, through its culture for example. But of course the GNH is not just that, it is a real vision, perfectly commendable of development for a whole country, with its strengths and weaknesses, but which has the immense merit of putting human being at the heart of the process.

Bhutan goes to Hollywood

A great example of successful soft-power for Bhutan is the magnificent journey of Pawo Choyning Dorji's film "Lunana, a Yak in the Classroom” (2019).

The pandemic delayed its release to the general public in many countries, but the film found its place in the hearts of professionals and audiences alike, receiving awards at the festivals in which it was presented, and was a finalist at the 2022 Oscars in the Best Foreign Film category, a historic first for a Bhutanese film! In France, Lunana was finally released in theatres only in May 2022, and has just exceeded 100,000 spectators, which is remarkable for a film that benefited from an extremely limited distribution.

The film depicts the country in all its complexity, between a young generation's desire to see if the grass is greener elsewhere, influenced by social media, and traditions that are unique but universal in the values they convey: care for others, respect, mutual aid, transmission... and the choices that follow. And more surely than any speech this film is a powerful engine to anchor the imagination on Bhutan, between magnificent landscapes, endearing personalities, unique traditions, and beautiful humanity.

Tourists welcome, but not just any tourists

Bhutan has announced the complete reopening of its borders after 2 1/2 years of total closure for the end of September 2022. This means the potential return of international travellers to a country that had made tourism one of its priority growth drivers.

But priority does not mean becoming a mass destination, Bhutan has always had a very unique tourism strategy, preferring to limit volumes by introducing a package involving spending a minimum of 250USD per day (excluding air transport) for an all-inclusive service (accommodation, excursions, land transport, food) and organised by a local incoming agency. The country has had the image of an elitist tourism destination because it is expensive (the notion being relative, however), and before the pandemic, only 70,000 international tourists entered the country (the other side of tourism being regional tourism, mainly from India, with very different financial conditions and much higher volumes).

Of the minimum 250USD per day, 65USD were taxes collected by the government to subsidise part of the education and free health care of its population. Even if Bhutan suffers from a lack of notoriety as a nation, and even more so as a tourist destination, its measured approach has enabled it to establish an image of "the last Shangri-la", preserved from mass tourism, rich in traditions, far from trivialised tourism.

A new tourism strategy has just been announced to accompany the reopening of borders, and it takes a further step towards elitism by increasing the compulsory government taxes paid by tourists from 65USD to 200USD per day, and by opening up the organisation of stays to individual travellers, who are free to select and book their own services. The daily cost for a traveller will thus increase, because even if the offer of "luxury" products (hotels in particular) is not very developed, the addition of all the daily services necessary for a trip will quickly increase the bill.

This new soft-power strategy, totally unique, will be one of the most interesting to observe in the coming months and as tourism becomes again a hotly contested sector after 2 years of forced halt. Bhutan has everything to offer in terms of landscapes, activities, traditions, kindness and welcome of its inhabitants, but will it be able to attract its target clientele who, for a similar budget, will have access to a much more luxurious offer elsewhere? What place will Bhutan have left on the world travel scene?

Copyright photos and text: Laurence Corteggiani / Atelier Ikiwa

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