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The Sustainable Kingdom No One Knows About

Nestled between India and China, the forest covered kingdom of Bhutan is an environmentalist’s paradise- and a mystery to the Western world.

This Buddhist country, located on the eastern edge of the Himalayas, has for many decades been a silent pioneer in the fight against climate change. As of 2022, more than 70% of the country's total geographical area was under forest cover. Current trends predict that this percentage is set to rise, thanks to unwavering efforts from organisations such as the Bhutan Ecological Society, who work to repair degraded forest land and strengthen the country's fight against the climate crisis. Despite this, there is still little to no awareness beyond Asia of this green utopia.

What makes Bhutan so sustainable?

The nation's claim to fame lies in its label as the first country in the world to achieve the title of "carbon negative." This term refers to a country which absorbs more CO2 than it produces- as is the case with Bhutan thanks to its extensive forestry. In a 2017 report published by the National Forest Inventory, it stated that the country is home to more than 800 million trees.

According to legendary British broadcaster and environmentalist David Attenborough in his 2020 Netflix documentary A Life On Our Planet, the call to "rewild our world" is the number one tactic at our disposal to reverse the harmful effects of CO2 emissions, promote the regeneration of fragile biodiversity and salvage collapsing ecosystems. As the planet continues to suffer the effects of climate change, Bhutan's commitment to protecting its forests serves as armour against the rapidly changing Earth.

As well as the regrowth and protection of forests, this South East Asian country has a well-developed hydro-power sector. As the country boasts an abundance of fresh-water rivers, hydro-power is Bhutan's biggest export- around 70% of the product being shipped off to neighbouring India in 2020. Naturally, the use of renewable energy sources as opposed to a reliance on oil and gas enables the country to generate power through more sustainable means.

What happens when you measure a country's growth in happiness?

Arguably, the most fundamental part of the country's sustainability is the focus on the wellbeing of its people. Unlike other countries in the world who use gross domestic product (GDP), the government in the kingdom of Bhutan measures economic development and moral progress in gross national happiness (GNH). This holistic approach runs parallel to the teachings of Buddhism and is broken down into the following 4 pillars:
  • Good governance

  • Sustainable development

  • Preservation and promotion of culture

  • Environmental conservation

The GNH is monitored between 0 and 1, where 1 represents higher wellbeing and happiness. The government of Bhutan reported a rise in this number from 0.756 in 2015 to 0.781 in 2022. These figures show a 3.3% increase- despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

So with sustainable practices in place to protect both planet and people, this land-locked country is well on its way to achieving the United Nations "Sustainable Development Goals". All seventeen to be exact.

Why isn't Bhutan a tourist hot-spot?

In a country with pristine forestry, breathtaking landscapes, unique wildlife, historic temples and rich culture, it's hard to image why it isn't a number one tourist destination. However, this is also a country that puts conservation and sustainable development at the forefront of day-to-day life. With this in mind, the lack of hives of tourists begin to make sense. Although nowadays the concept of sustainable tourism is a la mode, tourism in itself is ultimately an unsustainable practice. Take Venice for example, and its 20 million visitors a year.

The government instead has chosen to tackle the rise in overtourism with strict tariffs and regulations for those planning on visiting the country. The current policy in place refers to a "high value, low volume" approach. This targets a small group of responsible travellers who guarantee high revenue for Bhutan. For the tourist, it equates to a well-tailored, unique experience.

One of the most controversial aspects of tourism in Bhutan is the sustainable development fee. This is a fee all tourists must pay per day to visit the country to help mitigate the negative impacts of tourism. It provides funds to invest in transformative programmes that sustain cultural traditions, protect the environment and upgrade infrastructure, directly in line with the United Nations SDGs. In this fee was initially set at 65 USD, but now as of 2022 it stands at a hefty 200 USD per day. According to the Director General of Tourism Council Bhutan, Dorji Dhradhu, increasing the sustainable development fee was a necessary step to ensure the continued stability and prosperity of the sector.

"Tourism is like minerals, to be protected for the future generation. The present generation might have to make sacrifices and lose some of our business in the short term, but in the long run, we all benefit."

Of course, considering the climate of today, it would be impossible for every country in the world to emulate the model adopted by Bhutan. In countries such as the United States and China, highly developed infrastructure and the endless pursuit of capitalism make it almost impossible to promote this sustainable way of life. But for the Bhutanese, sustainability is an intrinsic part of their everyday. Something they wear like a badge of honour. The continued protection of the environment and their culture is paramount to maintaining this happiness index with which they govern their country.

So, although we may never be able to fully emulate this kingdom of sustainability, nor govern our countries with our happiness, there's something in Bhutan we can all learn from.


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