I traveled to Bhutan, a remote, unspoiled kingdom of myth and legend high in the Himalayas.
And it's truly the last “Shangri-La”.
Image via beautifuldestinations
The Kingdom of Happiness
Bhutan is the only country to officially adopt Gross National Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the main development indicator.
The government set up a Ministry of Happiness. The population census questionnaire has a column where you can indicate whether you’re satisfied with your life or not. At the last census, 95% of the population indicated that they're happy.
This is a country ruled by a monarch who had freely given up his absolute power to usher in democracy. A place where teachers are the highest-paid civil servants and the Prime Minister spends his weekends working as a surgeon.
Villagers lead a simple existence without the frills of modern life. You'll find semi-nomadic herders who depend on their yaks for meat, cheese, clothing and more.
Walking around town, no one honks at you and everyone is at peace. You can feel it.
Image via beautifuldestinations
There's a High Price Tag
Bhutan has the highest tourist fee of anywhere in the world.
The country prides itself on a sustainable approach to tourism. They focus on attracting high-end visitors and environmentally responsible tour operations.
To protect Bhutan’s environment and culture, the government placed a minimum fee of $250 per person per day for tourists – making it one of the most expensive destinations in the world.
But it can be a good value. The fee is all-inclusive – hotels, meals, private transport, a driver and an official guide are all provided. You do things privately and on your schedule. No cramming into a tour bus with 50 other people. I could sightsee for 6 hours a day, or 16 hours a day – whatever I preferred.
It's also worth noting that one-third of the minimum daily fee goes directly towards government programs providing free education, healthcare, and poverty alleviation.
Most importantly, Bhutan wouldn’t be the same if it were overcrowded with tourists. The government has opened up tourism to provide the highest value possible without having to deal with millions of tourists.
COMO Uma Paro
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Bhutan is Saving the Planet
In a world looking for new ideas, Bhutan is already called the poster child of sustainable development.
More than 95% of the population has clean water and electricity, 72% of the country is forested and, to the envy of many countries, it is carbon-negative and food secure.
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They're Keeping It Like That
The Kingdom has preserved its rich cultural identity throughout years of isolation. Tourism was only allowed less than four decades ago.
There are no Starbucks, no KFCs, and no McDonald's. In the entire country, there are no traffic lights at all. TV and internet were banned until 1999. Bhutan was the last country in the world that started using television.
Bhutan is undeveloped in an intentional way. The people like to keep their traditional Buddhist lifestyles and chose to modernize minimally.
Bhutanese wear their national dress proudly. The male Gho and female Kira dresses are always worn for official duties, school, work, and weddings.
By royal decree, all buildings must be constructed in traditional Bhutanese architecture. And that includes the airports, hospital, and banks.
Above all, there's the Bhutan royal family...
They look like real life Disney characters.
The King of Bhutan is the Elvis Presley of Asia. Queen Jetsun Pema is the Queen of Bhutan. Her title translates literally to the Dragon Queen.
If it’s not ‘Shangri-La’, it’s as close as it gets.