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The Shangri La of the 21st Century

  Imagine a kingdom nestled in the Himalayan mountain range that exemplifies one of the last vestiges of a state encouraged form of Vajrayana Buddhism in the world. A nation which only fairly recently began to embrace 21st century modern ideals and technology, in juxtaposition with its integration of traditionalist values into society. While nations that fit this description are few and far between in the modern era, nevertheless one such nation does exist: the Kingdom of Bhutan.

        In June 2013, the small mountainous Kingdom of Bhutan held only its second election in its entire history as a nation. This election was only made possible through King Jigme Wangchuck’s -the father of the present monarch- decision to embark on a path of gradual reform from an absolute monarchy to the constitutional monarchy that Bhutan is today. These reforms started in 1999 with the introduction of modern technologies such as television and the Internet. The reforms pertaining to modernization were also coupled with a 10-year political transition that instilled democratic values into a population unfamiliar with democracy in general. This could be seen when Bhutan had to hold mock elections in 2007, in order to educate its populace on the intricacies of voting.

         The recent changes that Bhutan has undergone has allowed Bhutanese society to receive exposure to products that developed countries might take for granted, however as the saying goes “every action has a reaction” and this is especially true for Bhutan. The major sources of governmental income for Bhutan are oranges, hydropower, and tourism. The first two sources demonstrate the centuries old connection that the Bhutanese people have with their land as a means of livelihood, but the introduction of tourism as an economic mainstay was only introduced in the 1970’s. An indication of the potential for growth the tourism industry in Bhutan is the fact that four years ago, Bhutan welcomed fewer than 25,000 visitors and now gets at least 100,000 annually. These statistics are even more impressive when the fact that tourists were only allowed starting in 1974, is taken into account. The new tourism industry has spurred a new class of entrepreneurs such as Bhutan’s richest person, Dasho Topgyal Dorji, who owns a Bhutanese conglomerate called the Tashi group. This company is the leader many industries such as hotels, banking and construction in Bhutan. Coupled with the fact that Bhutan is going through a major construction boom due to an increase in tourism, an increase in governmental revenue from hydropower, and an increase in purchasing power by the general populace, entrepreneurs such as Dasho are taking advantage of Bhutan’s continuing path of modernization.

       While the general trend towards modernization has had major benefits for the Bhutanese society such as an increase in standards of living, and access to an increase of consumer goods, the Bhutanese government was well aware of the consequences of overarching reforms and therefore set up certain safeguards to preserve the Bhutanese culture. The general policy of the Bhutanese government can best be summed up through Voltaire’s view that “with great power comes great responsibility”. The problems that many modern societies that rapidly industrialized have, such as low levels of general satisfaction with the standards of living, are not as visible in Bhutanese society, primary due to policies enforced by the Bhutanese government. These policies were set up by King Jigme Wangchuck in order to protect the culture of Bhutan, and some of the main pillars of this policy are the enforcement of a national dress, and the restriction of mass tourism. While tourism is increasing in Bhutan, the requirement that visitors must travel as part of a pre-arranged package or guided tour and the discouragement of backpackers and independent travellers creates a barrier that prevents a large reliance by the local population on foreign tourists from developing. By enacting this policy, the government prevents any significant potential alterations of the local cultural values and traditions in order to accommodate large amounts of foreign visitors. Another much lauded policy of the government is the usage of Gross National Happiness (GNH), as an indicator of progress in the nation, and takes into account both the quality of life from an economic standpoint as well as from a spiritual standpoint. An indicator of how successful these policies have been so far can be seen in the fact that Bhutan consistently ranks within the top ten happiest countries in the world.

      Throughout history, rapid modernization has led to issues of political turmoil and social unrest, however in the small Kingdom of Bhutan, the detrimental effects of modernization has,so far,  been less visible in this nation. While Bhutan is no longer the mysterious and isolated mountain kingdom it once was, the advent of modern marvels such as the television and the Internet, have not stopped this nation of 800,000 from maintaining its cultural heritage and customs. Although the world is as more and more countries fall victim to the consequences of modernization, for the meantime Bhutan remains a cultural island in a sea of increasing modernization.

-Gabriel Ning

photo credit: PaternitéPas d'utilisation commercialePartage selon les Conditions Initiales Certains droits réservés par Greg Headley

About Gabriel Ning

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