The current discourse on “BHUTAN – Believe” is showing a promising start – confusion, the beginning of wisdom. Bhutanese conversation is attempting honest public debate on critical issues, as important as our national identity and image and vision. While we have reason to be confused, we have every reason to be optimistic.
Some of us are currently missing the perspective. Not surprising because, in some ways, we are suddenly in a deep dive into something that is on our minds all the time – “Believe”.
Bhutan’s evolution is not just change. We are seeing dramatic transformation that has already introduced us to a new chapter in our history. It is an era defined by the Royal vision of a just and harmonious society – a society which aims to be dependable and trustworthy. It is in this context that we need to believe – in our country, in ourselves, and in our future.
“BHUTAN – Believe” is not a brand given to us by some “foreigners” as it is has been alleged. For most Bhutanese, a brand usually connotes a product rather than a nation. But many of us know that Bhutan is a brand that we are challenged – in some ways, struggling – to live up to. This is now vindicated by a group of Bhutanese and brand specialists from around the world. And it is out there for contemplation and deliberation.
“Believe” is not a tourism tagline. As catchphrases go, “Happiness is a Place” worked as a draw for some tourists. It has been appreciated by the industry, but how many of us actually believe that happiness is a place?
“Believe” takes reflection to a deeper level. We are not asked to believe for the sake of believing. We are asked to recognise the sense of trust, awareness, ambition, adventure in “Believe” as an aspiration and inspiration. We are asked to believe in ourselves, in our worth, in our future, with hope and confidence.
Conventional wisdom tells us that it is natural to resist change. It is not easy to move away from the familiar. Some are attached to happiness. Some say “Believe” is too vague, too simplistic. But we are questioning change. Beyond the reflexive reaction, we are asking very relevant questions.
We also recognise and understand the cynicism, coming mostly from service providers in the tourism sector whose businesses, even livelihoods, are affected. Fortunately, this is a phase, albeit a painful one. We anticipate that Bhutan will host a growing number of discerning and conscious visitors and that the industry will expand, more equitably, all Bhutanese being stakeholders.
In the past tourists were charmed by the mystique and romanticism of Bhutan. They alighted starry-eyed from the aircraft in Paro, already believing they are happy. But, today, just as “Believe” is a term which takes us to a higher level of thought, visitors and guests expect an elevated experience with more sophisticated and professional services.
Is this a turnaround from GNH? No, it is not. In 1979, His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuck coined Gross National Happiness as a pun on a world enamoured with Gross National Product. As early as 2007, His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck said that what GNH is will never change but how we achieve GNH will. This is exactly what is happening. GNH stands as a higher vision for human development, a goal that is needed more than ever.
The brand experts who worked with a Bhutanese team to clarify our brand drew all their ideas from different sections of Bhutanese society. With the so-called development process, we have seen Bhutanese society swing from a “foreigners know everything” view to “we know better than foreigners”. But we have matured to a level where, just as we know what’s going wrong in the world, we know that there is much to learn out there.
“Bhutan – Believe” comes as a vital challenge at a time when Bhutanese society is grappling with tensions and problems caused by a credibility gap and trust deficit. We can potentially be affected by antagonism among political parties, regionalism, lack of coordination within government agencies, confusion in the judiciary, a private sector looking for attention and direction, youth being identified as problems, and a lackluster media.
“Believe” is a reminder of the vision of a “dependable and trustworthy” society. It conveys a strong sense of national cohesion.
The misconception and, therefore, criticism of “Believe” appears to come from the chasm between the profundity of a national vision and a tourism tagline. A just and harmonious society has universal relevance. It is as pragmatic as it is lofty; it is as real as the Last Shangrila is a dream. Being a dependable and trustworthy society means rule of law and equity in all aspects of a justice and harmonious existence.
Tourism is one aspect of Bhutan’s, and the world’s, post crisis recovery dilemma. For Bhutan it means reversing the trend of an industry sliding into mass tourism. It means redefining the concept of high value experience for visitors and guests who, after visiting the country, become ambassadors of Bhutan. This means updating the regulatory environment, restructuring the agencies involved, upskilling service providers, upgrading hotels and restaurants, farm stays and glamping destinations – elevating all facilities and services for the conscious travelers.
This is a herculean task, beyond the capability of one agency like the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) as it is today. We are hoping that the transformation of Bhutanese governance systems will strengthen TCB as a sensitive and vibrant organisation for such a profound responsibility. The harsh truth is that TCB has much to learn – but don’t we all? Looking at the experience of visitors, from visa processes to flight attendance, from hospitality to financial services, from waste management to public hygiene, we are some distance away from being a high value destination.
TCB and the entire service industry are only as good as we make them so we all have the wider mandate to help them with ideas and suggestions, not just criticism and denigration. Then we should also expect government agencies to follow up on our ideas with action, incentives, and discipline.
We need to believe in a vision that we know is designed for Bhutan. It is the goal for change, evolution, and transformation into a new reality. It is a vision that will not just happen. Believe has to be a shared consciousness and, therefore, a shared identity. It is a vision that will be achieved only when we ourselves believe in it.
Dasho Kinley Dorji