Today, the first of August, is Switzerland’s National Day.

Switzerland is celebrating the 175th anniversary of the foundation of the modern Swiss Federal State in 1848. It is the birthday of Switzerland and its institutions as we know them today.

We at the Swiss Embassy made a decision to celebrate this milestone of Switzerland’s history right here in Thimphu. I have therefore arrived here with a Swiss business delegation to further strengthen our trade and investment partnership with Bhutan.

I would like to take this opportunity to recall the origins of the Swiss-Bhutanese special bonds, and to assess where we stand as partners. And I would also like to try and envision what the future holds for both our nations.

A unique friendship

Globally, there are very few cases which can be used to illustrate how a genuine contact between two human beings can give way to state relations. The unique Swiss-Bhutanese relation is one of them.

The bilateral relations between Switzerland and Bhutan are the result of the friendship and the dedication of individuals and citizens of the two countries. Let me explain that.

In 1949, the then 19-years old Swiss student Lisina von Schulthess and the equally young Ashi Kesang Choden, a citizen of Bhutan, became friends while on an English language course in London. But Ashi Kesang Choden, was no ordinary young woman. She was the soon-to-be Queen of Bhutan.

Out of this friendship arose a series of royal visits to the Swiss family residence in Cham, a small town by Lake Zug. Soon after, the von Schulthess family was in turn invited to Bhutan.

This reciprocity was to prove to be the foundational seed for the bilateral relation between our two countries.

This seed was brought to germination when in 1964, His Majesty, Jigme Dorje Wangchuck, the young King of Bhutan, spent some time in Switzerland and specifically in Cham.

The visit lasted four months. And by the time the King left, he thereafter referred to Switzerland as “his second home” which had provided him with “the best and most beautiful memories”.

On the other end, Lisina’s father, Fritz von Schulthess – probably inspired by the special character of this friendship – decided to make use of his influence as a successful Swiss entrepreneur to launch small-scale initiatives in Bhutan.

Rapidly, several small-scale development projects blossomed across the Himalayan Kingdom. In 1972, the “Pro Bhutan” foundation was created by Fritz von Schulthess himself. In 1975, “Pro Bhutan” matured into the Swiss NGO “Helvetas” which the Swiss governmental Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) then undertook to provide with financial support.

It was only at this point that the Swiss Government came into the equation. In 1985, Switzerland became the 9th country to formalize diplomatic ties with Bhutan.

Throughout the years, more than 200 million Swiss francs have been invested in Bhutan, this money being dedicated to projects in forestry, agriculture, infrastructure, health and education, and good governance. The Bhutan National Potato Programme; the renovation of the Wangdue-Tsangchu bridge; the constructions of the Wangdichoeling district hospital; and of the Paro College of Education are some of the fruits of these engagements.

What the history of Swiss-Bhutanese relations shows, is how personal friendship can have impact on the relations between states. Undeniably, the Bhutanese people’s openness, curiosity and receptivity towards their Swiss counterparts was critical in this joint success.

From aid to trade

Now let us have a look at where Switzerland and Bhutan stand as partners today.

Bhutan is about to graduate to becoming a middle-income country at the end of this year. This is a notable success. Bhutan has changed. Bhutan has made much economic progress. And so, naturally, our bilateral relations are changing with it.

In 2016, after more than 40 years in Bhutan, the Swiss Development Cooperation Agency phased out. The Swiss NGO “Helvetas” will in turn undergo a change in 2026. This means the end of our traditional development cooperation and the beginning of something new.

In August 2018, Switzerland opened an Honorary Consulate in Thimphu. This is how Switzerland is now physically represented and maintains a presence in Bhutan.

Ten months after the Honorary Consulate was established, the first-ever Swiss business delegation visit to Bhutan took place. For the first time in the history of Swiss-Bhutanese relations, 20 representatives of 17 Swiss businesses from a variety of sectors traveled to the Himalayan Kingdom to discover the country’s trade, culture, as well as potential investment and business opportunities. This was effectively the launch of a new phase in our bilateral relations focusing now on trade.

The Covid-19 pandemic interrupted the concrete follow-up of our trade mission. But in every crisis lies an opportunity: to reflect on our future and to reassess our ambitions.

The Bhutanese government used the crisis to develop a new vision for Bhutan and is now reviewing the 2019 policy for Foreign Direct Investments accordingly. Based on these upcoming changes, we have set up a second Swiss business mission to Bhutan under the heading: “Back to Business for a Sustainable Future”. The number of businesses which registered for this trip gave us confirmation that Bhutan is firmly on the Swiss business community’s radar.

And so here we are today, back in Thimphu, with more than 30 delegates in attendance; with a stimulating program laid out; and with open minds for more trade and investments between our two nations.

A new future

Celebrating the 175th anniversary of the modern Swiss federal state gives me the opportunity to recall the times when the Swiss Confederation found itself in a phase of huge transition trying to figure out the shape of its future.

Switzerland was a poor country at that time. Its preexisting economic conditions were indeed far from favorable for development. Apart from timber, salt, and hydroelectric energy, no raw materials or natural resources could be found on its territory.

And making all this even worse, the country had no trade ports as it had no direct access to the sea.

Switzerland as a democracy found itself internationally isolated. In the 19th century, some rural and alpine areas were so poor that their inhabitants had no choice but to take the difficult step of emigrating all the way across the Atlantic, to the US.

In this context, Switzerland had no other option but to place a bet on its hardworking population.

Progressively, the nation specialized in the fabrication and export of quality goods and services with a major focus on high value addition.

These strategic decisions have contributed to the nation’s prosperity. Switzerland has created a very favorable ecosystem, characterized by a dynamic and competitive private sector in close touch with top-rated research and cultural institutions. Thanks to this, Switzerland stands as a world leader in innovation today. 

The Bhutanese government used the Covid crisis to develop a new vision for Bhutan. Bhutan is embarking on a totally new trajectory.

As the Swiss Ambassador to Bhutan, I will follow very closely the vision and plans of the Royal Bhutanese Government in order to find new ways of cooperation.

Switzerland will remain a close friend of Bhutan and accompany the Bhutanese people on their transformative journey.

Contributed by

Ralf Heckner

Ambassador of Switzerland to Bhutan