Tourism is not a single sector responsibility – as it used to be perceived – but a multi-dimensional concept which requires constant communications, collaboration, and partnerships. (Extracts of an interview with Dr Karma Tshering from Research Panel Sustainability Leaders Project:

Bhutan declared an extensive network of Protected Areas,  covering almost half the size of the nation’s land, one of the highest proportions in any country worldwide. The responsibility for its management within the government was entrusted to the Nature Conservation Division, the office I worked for during the start of my career. At the time, Protected Area (PA) management was relatively new in Bhutan. I consider myself lucky to have been given the opportunity to become, almost from its inception, a member of a group of Protected Area professionals who grew with that vision.

Unlike many other countries, Bhutan’s conservation policy allows people to reside within the PA. This circumstance demanded an integrated approach to conservation and development. Since most of the conservation programs were donor-funded, they lacked sustainability. The people’s interest in conservation activities were short-term. Therefore, identifying projects that ensured long-term commitment and benefits to both people and conservation was essential. That’s when my attention was drawn to tourism.

Through my research I was able to demonstrate that sustainable tourism development is a viable option to stimulate the support of the public for biodiversity conservation and cultural preservation, and that such development is necessary for the sustainability of the Protected Areas in Bhutan.

It was evident that if planned and implemented in consultation with the local people and other relevant partners, tourism has the potential to offer a symbiotic relationship in promoting socio-economic development, cultural preservation and biodiversity conservation. Tourism is not a single sector responsibility – as it used to be perceived – but a multi-dimensional concept which requires constant communications, collaboration, and partnerships.

Tourism as a positive force for conservation  and happiness

The four pillars to the vision of happiness, in addition to the conservation of the natural environment, are the preservation of the cultural heritage, equitable socio-economic development, and good governance. While the country seeks to focus development based on each of the happiness pillars, in my view we cannot focus on each pillar in isolation but will need an integrated approach that combines all four pillars.

It is important to identify programs that can successfully combine all the pillars, resulting in an overall positive impact. Tourism has the prospect to provide this critical link.

Especially for Bhutan, with limited potential for industrialization, but with a unique culture and an intact natural environment, the capacity of tourism as a major force for its development is apparent. There are several examples around the world where tourism is becoming the driving force for conservation. Likewise, here in Bhutan, tourism has made a substantial contribution to conservation and happiness.

The stringent conservation policies weigh heavily on the local people living in and around the forests and parks with increased wildlife predation impacting their subsistence livelihood. This problem has been alleviated through seed funding established for livestock compensation established through tourism, other interventions and promoting of community-based tourism to provide supplementary income.

Sustainable tourism development is able to generate positive benefits for conservation of the cultural and natural heritage while offering socio-economic benefits to the local people. This symbiosis contributes to happiness.

‘Incentive-based Conservation’ as a practical approach to safeguarding nature

I am sure many of us would agree that human motivation to a large extent is incentive-driven. Incentives can come in different forms either direct or indirect. Likewise, an incentive-based approach to conservation to me is the most logical and practical to fulfilling conservation needs.

It is only natural that people become more encouraged to participate in conservation if they see some benefits for themselves. Economic benefits are no doubt attractive, but there are also far-reaching benefits for people’s appreciation towards conservation through nature recreational activities.

I had the opportunity to demonstrate this in Bhutan by starting nature recreational programs. I realized that although we had an extensive network of parks and Protected Areas in Bhutan, it lacked public interest in its appreciation and consequently its support.

Incentivizing through responsible enjoyment to me is a sustainable approach. I played a key role in advocating the establishment of a Division within the Department of Forests and Parks that was specifically mandated to promote nature recreation and ecotourism programs within the forests and parks of Bhutan.

The Division, since its establishment in 2011, has created several nature recreational areas and programs for the public. This has led to an increased understanding and appreciation of natural areas, resulting in increased public support for conservation.

People are a vital link to nature conservation and strengthening this link is fundamental to achieving the conservation objectives. A conservation policy that engages people’s participation through an incentive approach has the prospects of delivering positive benefits for people and nature.

Lessons from Bhutan as a sustainable tourism  destination

The state of the natural environment is one of the most important attributes for developing sustainable tourism. Bhutan is fortunate that the stringent conservation policies within a large subsistence farming community have led to an intact natural environment consisting of over 72% of the country under forest cover.

While quick monetary benefits from forests have lured many countries to indiscriminately log large areas, Bhutan on the contrary, under the visionary leadership of The Fourth Druk Gyalpo was not tempted towards these short-term gains. Instead, the forests were conserved and nurtured like the goose that lays the golden eggs for the future economy of Bhutan. The Bhutanese people now enjoy that future. The pristine state of the natural environment has generated substantial revenue from clean energy production through hydropower and also enhanced opportunities for tourism.

Bhutan has demonstrated to the outside world that supporting conservation is not only about fulfilling the ecological need, but an economic investment endowed with long-term benefits. Hopefully, many countries are encouraged and will learn from Bhutan and pledge their commitment to follow this path. 

Travellers are increasingly seeking destinations that are more natural. The authentic cultural and natural landscape of Bhutan has branded Bhutan as one of the top tourist destinations and Bhutan will continue to be sought for its natural exclusivity by our visitors. 

Dr. Karma Tshering (PhD.) is the Managing Director of BTFEC (Bhutan Trust Fund for Environmental Conservation). He has Ph.D. in Conservation and Development from University of Sydney, Australia. A passionate conservationist, Dr. Karma has served for over 27 years in various agencies in the field of environmental conservation and ecotourism. He has been actively involved in the promotion of incentive-based conservation through transformation of conventional system of forest and park management by establishing and institutionalizing nature recreation and ecotourism in the country. He continues to dedicate his time and services for environmental conservation.

This series is sponsored by Ecotourism Project “Mainstreaming Biodiversity Conservation into the Tourism Sector in Bhutan” funded by GEF-UNDP through the Department of Tourism, RGoB.