From its luxury retreats to its eco-credentials, here’s why you should head to the Himalayas this year
In 1974, the leaders of a tiny, little-known kingdom on the eastern ridge of the Himalayas between India’s northeastern states and China, made a drastic decision. For the first time, Bhutan would throw open its doors to visitors. In that year, just 287 foreigners discovered a mountainous land shrouded in mystery and Buddhist tradition. Almost 50 years later, Bhutan is firmly on the adventurer’s map. Yet, thanks to the singular approach of its government to tourism, even as it has grown, the country retains its almost mythical status. With hotel openings and a growing focus on sustainable – and luxury – travel, 2020 may be the best year yet to sample the delights of the world’s last Shangri-La. Here are eight reasons why.
1. It’s Not Nepal
Think landlocked Himalayan country and Nepal is probably the first that comes to mind, which is why well over a million people fly there every year. A long-standing fixture on the itineraries of adventurers and free-spirited backpackers, Nepal has become a magnet for tour groups who swarm through the streets of Kathmandu and beyond. You can expect great armies of French septuagenarians in khaki slacks and hiking sandals and gangs of braying gap-year kids in tie-dye harem pants. They are all rewarded for their efforts. Nepal is a stunning country, but the snaking lines of mountaineers on Everest in recent years are a symbol of its broader growth in popularity. It is not, in short, off the beaten track.
2. Its Luxe Game is Strong
Bhutan’s appeal to bigger-spending travellers has, along with its myriad selling points, attracted the attention of the laid-back luxury market. Given its size and remoteness, the country is home to an unusually high number of high-end hotels and resorts. Six Senses, the global pioneer of barefoot luxury, already has four resorts in Bhutan and is due to open its fifth this spring. Six Senses Bumthang will be perhaps its most intimate property, with just eight serene suites and a two-bedroom villa scattered in a riverside pine forest in the Jakar Valley. Aman Resorts also has five lodges in Bhutan under its Amankora brand, while COMO Hotels and Resorts has two. Gangtey Lodge is a standout independent property in the isolated valley of the same name, which is famed for its sacred black-necked cranes.
3. Its People Are Happy
One of Bhutan’s biggest, and unlikely, exports is happiness, or at least the pursuit of it. Since 2008, the tiny country’s government has attempted to measure the happiness of its citizens so that gross national happiness might be considered a more meaningful barometer of national health than traditional economic measures such as gross domestic product. Every five years, government surveyors fan out across the country to quiz 8,000 randomly selected households. Participants receive a day’s wages to sit through 300 questions about health, education, culture, community, ecology and living standards. Bhutan is not immune to the pressures of climate change or globalisation, but its attempt to quantify happiness has inspired similar projects in the UN and beyond.
4. It’s Very Green
Lush woodland covers more than 70 per cent of Bhutan’s land, a green asset that has also helped it to become one of the world’s most environmentally progressive countries. While larger nations are battling to reduce their emissions, Bhutan is already carbon negative. It absorbs three times more CO2 than it emits. All those trees and the nation’s limited development help, but environmental protection is also enshrined in the constitution. Logging exports are banned and tree cover cannot drop below 60 per cent. A reliance on hydropower is part of the picture. The country is also due this year to become the first in the world to go wholly organic in its food production.
5. It’s Still Authentic
In a world where the corporate giants and tourism boards with the budgets of small countries cling to ideas of authenticity, or conjure them out of thin air, Bhutan has set itself apart. Thanks to its newness as a destination and a cautious approach to tourism, the Himalayan idyll has remained unspoilt and effortlessly real. But there is only so much a small country with a small economy can do to maintain its happy equilibrium in the face of multiple global tourism juggernauts, not least from neighbouring China. The advice from those who know Bhutan is simple: go, but go soon.
6. It Has Great Food
Cuisine is yet another area in which Bhutan punches above its weight. While a lot of Himalayan food is hearty and rich, Bhutan also has an insatiable appetite for spice. Plump (organic, naturally) chilli peppers are piled high at markets to be added to dishes and often to be used as the main vegetable (seeds are typically removed for the more sensitive palates of visitors). Chillies are the star of ema datshi, the country’s unofficial national dish, a curry made with cheese and served with red rice, another Bhutanese staple. Chicken and pork also feature heavily and the country has a spicy twist on momo, the soul-warming boiled dumplings found across the mountainous states of south Asia.
7. It’s Not Crowded
Bhutan’s solution to the great tourism paradox of an increasingly mobile world – balancing the need for visitors with their generally destructive impact on land, traditions and culture – has been to aim high. Better to attract 100 wealthy travellers with big daily budgets than 1,000 backpackers competitively boasting about their 50p-a-night hostels. To help achieve this less-is-more approach to travel, the country imposes a pretty keen minimum cost of travel of $250 per person per day. This applies to groups of three or more (there are separate charges for solo travellers or those in pairs), who must also travel with accredited agencies and stay in hotels of three stars or more. Tourism is growing for sure, but at about 275,000 visitors per year, it still has a relatively low impact.
8. Its Buddhist Heritage is Spectacular
Bhutan’s Taj Mahal is the Tiger’s Nest, or Paro Takstang. Perched precariously on a cliffside some 900m above the surrounding rice fields of Paro Valley, the monastery has for more than three centuries been one of the most sacred sites in the Himalayas. Guru Rinpoche himself, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, is supposed to have meditated for years inside a cave at the heart of the temple. Visitors are made to work for the sweeping views and spiritual enlightenment. The trail to the monastery winds up steeply through pine forests past pilgrims and fluttering prayer flags. Yet it is only one of dozens of Buddhist sites across Bhutan that rival any in Asia. Dzong, a majestic fortress, sits among jacaranda trees in the Punakha valley and is where Bhutanese kings are crowned. The country is also known for its spectacular archery competitions and textiles.