The Himalayan mountain kingdom of Bhutan is so remote that as late as 1980, it had just 1,200 phone lines in service. Television came to this isolated Shangri-La only in 1999, and even today, fewer than 300,000 tourists visit Bhutan annually.
It also happens to be one of only a handful of countries without an embassy in Washington. Bhutan doesn’t even maintain diplomatic ties with the United States, putting the Maryland-size Buddhist nation in dubious company with bad boys Iran, Syria and North Korea.
What Bhutan does have, however, is an ambitious nonprofit organization that seeks to strengthen bilateral cultural, economic and educational links in the absence of formal relations.
The Bhutan Foundation, located on the 7th floor of an office building in Dupont Circle, is the only Bhutanese presence of any kind in the nation’s capital.
Running it is Tshewang Wangchuk, the charity’s 50-year-old executive director.
“This foundation started in 1986, and it’s the result of a friendship among three women who went to school in London in the 1940s,” Wangchuk told The Washington Diplomat. “One of them, Kesang Choden Wangchuk, went back and married the king of Bhutan, becoming the third queen. Another friend married John Goelet, and both of them wanted to stay engaged with Bhutan and support a few projects, starting with agriculture.”
At last count, Bhutan had relations with 52 countries — a list that includes Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica and Cuba.
“We approach all of this with mindfulness,” Tshewang Wangchuk told us. “We are a small country, having just barely graduated from low-income to middle-income status, so any embassy or mission abroad comes at a huge economic burden to the country. Our policy has always been to have relations that are meaningful, but without economic implications.”
He added: “We are living in an increasingly interdependent world and will definitely have to establish relations. But just because there’s no political presence doesn’t mean that people-to-people relationships don’t exist.”
In 1974, Bhutan opened its doors to foreign tourists — but only for a very wealthy few.
“There wasn’t a lot of infrastructure that could handle mass tourism,” Wangchuk said. “As we opened up, we saw what was happening in the neighborhood. Other countries were being culturally swamped [by foreign visitors]. We saw some positives in tourism, but also a lot of negatives, and that led to Bhutan’s policy of low-volume, high-value tourism.”
The Bhutanese hope to avoid the fate of nearby Nepal — whose 30 million people struggle with natural disasters, corruption and civil unrest — and which is the perfect example of a country ruined by mass tourism. Air pollution in Kathmandu has reached toxic levels, the capital city’s Bagmati River has become an open sewer and the ever-increasing number of mountaineers attempting to scale Nepal’s Mount Everest is gradually turning the world’s highest mountain into a garbage dump.
At present, Bhutan has a few exclusive hotels in the $1,500- to $2,000-a-night range, but this country of 800,000 people has no plans to pursue anything more than that.
“There is an attempt to avoid mass tourism, but rather to regulate tourism so that it’s manageable,” Wangchuk said. “We are a small country that can easily be swamped by a huge number of tourists in a very short time.”
To keep $10-a-day backpackers and hippies out, the government of Bhutan started requiring visitors to spend a minimum $200 daily in low season and $250 in peak season. And visas are required for citizens of all nations except India, Bangladesh and the Maldives.
“You must come through a certified tour agent, but there’s a misconception,” Wangchuk said. “People think that $250 is a fee on top of expenses. However, it’s all-inclusive; it includes a guide, hotels and all meals. From that amount, $65 a day is automatically transferred to the government treasury as a sustainable tourism fee.”
While tourism has steadily increased, with over 270,000 travelers visiting the country in 2017, the numbers are still nothing compared to other popular destinations (Venice alone is inundated by over 30 million tourists a year), and the government is determined to promote a model built around sustainable tourism.
Monasteries, Not McDonald’s
The appeal of Bhutan, named the best place to visit in 2020 by Lonely Planet, is obvious. Sometimes called the “Switzerland of Asia,” the tiny Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between China and India boasts a landscape of lush forests, fertile valleys and craggy mountain passes punctuated by remote monasteries and red-cloaked monks.
Situated along the ancient Silk Road and isolated for centuries, Bhutan was never colonized and developed a distinct national identity based on Buddhism. It has gradually opened up to the world, establishing relations with the British Empire in the 19th century and, more recently, forging a strategic partnership with neighboring India during the Cold War. In 2008, the country transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a democratic constitutional monarchy and has worked to develop its economy, in part through tourism but also hydropower and trade with India.
But the sparsely populated country has retained its unique character — and quirks. Even though for years Bhutan didn’t even have a postal system, philatelists the world over revere the Buddhist kingdom for the outrageous postage stamps it issues, including aluminum-foil stamps, three-dimensional stamps, scratch-and-sniff stamps and stamps that played the Bhutanese national anthem when placed on a 45-rpm turntable.
And while not as ubiquitous as they once were, paintings, sculptures and gifts depicting erect penises — intended to ward off evil spirits and promote acceptance — can still be found throughout the country.
Amazingly, the kingdom has managed to remain free of Starbucks, McDonald’s, 7-Eleven and Walmart, although there is one Baskin-Robbins ice cream outlet in Thimphu. There’s also the internet. Both Facebook and WeChat are quite popular among Bhutanese youth, and even farmers now use smartphones to exchange photos, prayers and funny videos.
Land of Gross National Happiness
Despite these advances, the country does not measure success by traditional indicators such as GDP but rather by its unique philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH), introduced in 1972 by the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. The premise of GNH is that the true development of a nation shouldn’t be based on technology or economic prosperity, but on a holistic model that places people at its center — very much in line with the country’s embrace of Buddhist-inspired peacefulness, respect for nature and the preservation of cultural traditions. As such, every five years, citizens are surveyed about their interactions with neighbors, the quality of their sleep, whether they meditate and other questions related to their wellbeing.
But how happy Bhutan’s 800,000 people really are is a matter of debate. In the 2018 United Nations World Happiness Report, Finland scored highest of 156 countries, with Bhutan down in 97th place.
NPR correspondent Julie McCarthy, who visited the country in early 2018, found that its people are growing a bit cynical of GNH.
“Bhutanese generally seem to derive happiness from the fact that, in a region beset by conflict, their country is at peace,” she wrote, noting that Bhutan’s last Gross National Happiness survey — conducted in 2015 — found that 8% of respondents were “deeply happy,” 35% “extensively happy” and 48% “narrowly happy.”
“If those numbers are anything to go by, Bhutan would actually be a ringing success — with more than 90% considering themselves ‘happy’ to one degree or another,” McCarthy wrote. “But with nearly half of the Bhutanese falling into the ‘narrowly happy’ camp, that’s a sizeable chunk who are well short of bliss. And that might mean that Bhutan is just about as content as the rest of us.”
But the government has made commendable efforts to help its citizens become more content. Education and health care services are free. Despite being on the U.N.’s list of “least developed countries,” Bhutan plans to graduate from this status in 2023. It also ranks high in economic freedom, ease of doing business and transparency.
The World Bank notes that poverty in Bhutan has been cut by two-thirds over the last decade and the country has experienced annual GDP growth of 7.5% since the early 1980s, making it one of the fastest growing economies in the world.
In addition to tourism, Bhutan’s major source of revenue is the sale of hydroelectric power to its energy-starved neighbor, India. At present, Bhutan generates about 1,500 megawatts of hydropower, a number likely to exceed 10,000 megawatts by 2020. India is also helping Bhutan build its first railroad link to the outside world.
As a result, the country has experienced impressive progress (although it still must diversify away from its dependence on India). In 1982, a baby born in Bhutan could expect to live 43 years, and only 10% of its people could read or write.
These days, life expectancy stands at 66 years and the literacy rate is 75%. Annual per-capita GDP has jumped from $400 in 1988 to about $3,100 today — more than twice the average for South Asia overall.
So while happiness is a nebulous concept, there is something to be said about Bhutan’s GNH philosophy and the four pillars on which it rests: good governance, equitable and sustainable development, preservation of culture and conservation of the environment.
From Wilderness to Washington
On that last point, environmentally conscious Bhutan, where plastic bags and cigarettes are both illegal, is in fact carbon-negative, absorbing more than 6 million tons of greenhouse gases annually but producing only 1.5 million tons. And the Bhutanese constitution requires that at least 60% of the country’s 14,824 square miles must remain under forest cover.
It’s an issue that’s deeply personal for the executive director of the Bhutan Foundation. A wildlife biologist by training, Wangchuk was previously the director of two national parks in Bhutan. He came to the United States to study at the University of Maryland in College Park and worked at California’s Yosemite and Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Parks during the summers. After graduating, he went on to earn a doctorate from the University of Montana; for his doctoral research in wildlife biology, he trekked the mountains of Bhutan collecting snow leopard scat for genetic analyses.
Wangchuk started advising the Bhutan Foundation on conservation issues and became its full-time executive director in early 2010. He’s also the first National Geographic Explorer from Bhutan and serves on the board of the Snow Leopard Conservancy.
The foundation he runs employs 13 people — five here and eight in Thimphu, Bhutan’s tiny capital — and operates on an annual budget of $4 million. First located in Georgetown and then on Pennsylvania Avenue, it’s been at its current location for less than two years.
“Across the board, we work on capacity-building in various fields. We facilitate partnerships between U.S. and Bhutanese institutions,” he said. Current partnerships link Phelps Hospital in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., and the Yale School of Public Health in New Haven, Conn., with emergency room physicians at Thimphu’s main hospital.
Yet Bhutan maintains no official ties with the United States.
“Our policy has always been to start with our friends and neighbors first,” Wangchuk explained. “During the Cold War, we always remained non-aligned, avoiding relations with any of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Later, we slowly began establishing relations with nearby countries, beginning with India and then Southeast Asia.”
While Bhutan is extremely close with India, the same can’t be said for its other large neighbor.
Wangchuk conceded that tensions with China have led to a “general paranoia” over the years. Those tensions stem from border disputes between the two countries and China’s 1959 invasion of Tibet, with which Bhutan shares strong cultural, historical and religious ties.
“We have two big neighbors, so there’s reason for us to be wary and paranoid,” he said. “That’s also why we joined the United Nations in 1971, because it was at the heels of all this going on.”
Darker Side of Shangri-La
Like China, however, Bhutan has a spotty human rights record, even though it officially became a democracy in 2008.
Since the early 1990s, according to Amnesty International, some 108,000 refugees of ethnic Nepalese origin — members of the Lhotshampa minority — have been living in squalid camps in eastern Nepal after they were “arbitrarily stripped of their nationality” and forced to flee Bhutan. These refugees — none of whom have been allowed to return — constitute about one-sixth of Bhutan’s population.
“The Bhutanese refugee situation has become one of the most protracted and neglected refugee crises in the world,” said the New York-based NGO. “Despite many rounds of bilateral talks between the governments of Nepal and Bhutan, a durable, rights-respecting solution to the plight of the Bhutanese refugees does not seem close. Amnesty International also remains concerned about continuing reports of discrimination against ethnic Nepalese living in Bhutan.”
After languishing in the camps for years or even decades, many Lhotshampa refugees were resettled in third countries, including the U.S.
In fact, despite the lack of relations between Bhutan and the U.S., Bhutanese refugees have a sizable presence in America. Since 2008, over 76,000 Bhutanese refugees from Nepalese camps have come here to make a new life for themselves.
Not surprisingly, Wangchuk’s office prefers to highlight the more positive side of people-to-people contacts between Bhutan and the U.S., even though those interactions remain fairly limited.
In 2008, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured a Bhutanese temple built on the National Mall; after the event was over, the temple was donated to the University of Texas in El Paso. In addition, every Labor Day weekend, a Bhutanese archery tournament takes place on the Baltimore estate of one of the foundation’s 19 board members. And in December, Bhutan’s mission to the U.N. in New York hosted a National Day reception.
In addition, many Bhutanese (including several of the country’s recent prime ministers) have studied at U.S. universities. One of them is Yeshey Tshogyal, who’s pursuing a double major in psychology and intercultural communications at New York’s Baruch College.
She told us that despite the lack of formal diplomatic ties, both countries maintain informal contacts through their respective embassies in New Delhi. Yet she concedes that her native land is still virtually unknown to the vast majority of Americans.
“Bhutan is never mentioned in any American news channels or digital media platforms. As a Bhutanese living in New York, I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to explain where my country is,” said the 23-year-old student. Nevertheless, she said “the U.S. and Bhutan are still capable of having significant interactions without formal relations, so I think we’re in no rush to establish ties.”
About the Author
Tel Aviv-based journalist Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.