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Bhutan’s Tourism Policy in Promoting Gross National Happiness

Written By Pao Jirakulpattana

The concept of happiness drives the outcome of most political and economic decisions in Bhutan. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck has clearly articulated his support: “I care less about the gross national product and more about the gross national happiness.”[1] Committed to this revolutionary notion, the King has instituted GNH as the guiding philosophy of Bhutan’s development policy, in an attempt to measure his people’s quality of life and social progress in more psychological and holistic terms. The pursuit of GNH calls for a multi-dimensional approach to development that seeks to balance and harmonize a variety of forces that influence human happiness. Therefore, the King grounds his policy of happiness in what have become known as the Four Pillars: sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental conservation, cultural preservation and promotion, and good governance.[2]

While the western definition of happiness is assumed to be derived from an independent consumer-based personal development, the Bhutanese definition relies on Buddhist values of spirituality and communality. This multi-faceted policy aimed at maximizing happiness therefore challenges the traditional development philosophy that focuses solely on economic prosperity. Its success was demonstrated to the international community when the United Nations placed Bhutan, one of world’s least (economically) developed countries, in the UN Human Development’s medium human development category with an index of 0.51/1 among countries that are much more developed than Bhutan in 1999.[3]
As physical boundaries that separate the world gradually disappear, interactions among distant nations are now easier and more common than ever before. Proponents of globalization assert that this process allows countries to maximize their use of resources, and increases the quality of life worldwide. On the other hand, there are also many who fear that interactions between cultures would result in the emergence of one prevailing homogenized set of values.
Also known as the “Happy Little Kingdom,” Bhutan remains cautious as it gradually opens up to industrialization and modernity. The King and his government strive to prevent problems of homogenization encountered by other developing countries that had focused solely on consumer-driven economic growth, which may not necessarily make the people happy. Rather than measuring his nation’s well-being by GDP, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck aims to evaluate progress through the broader development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH). The four criteria, or Pillars, of GNH align with contemporary research and experiments on happiness in positive psychology.
One way to evaluate the success of GNH as the guiding principle is through the country’s tourism policy. The King’s government strongly believes in the role of tourism as a development and poverty alleviation strategy for the nation. Given Bhutan’s pristine environment and cultural resources, tourism emerges as one of the country’s principal industries, capable of contributing to the ultimate goal of a high GNH. However, the implementation process may work adversely against the country’s very goal of happiness. Although Bhutan’s current tourism policy represents a promising attempt to increase the country’s GNH, a close examination of the scheme reveals significant complications such as the inequity in the distribution of the economic benefits, a change in people’s mentality towards monetary gain, and covert political agenda.
There may be a fundamental flaw with regard to how the government views the progress of a society. In ancient Greece, economics literally meant ‘Household Management’, but is now defined as ‘a science which studies human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means with alternative uses’. It is important to note that economics defines ends and means primarily in material terms. Textbooks talk of economics laws assuming that men compete for scarce and limited sources. Happy is the man who is able to consume these resources, unhappy is the one who is not. Economists embrace the principles of selfish individualism: the more he consumes, the better off. However, as he consumes out of the perpetual urge to consume, then he voluntarily inflicts himself with unhappiness and discontent if his needs are unmet.
Now, consider Americans. Is our government making us happier?

• How many Americans are taking antidepressants or using alcohol or other forms of addictions as a way to cope with the pressures of the current socioeconomic system? Is the number declining or on the rise?

• How many people do you know whose lifestyle is causing severe pressures on their psychological, emotional and relationship health?

• How many people do you know suffer from chronic workplace stress, anxiety, low self-esteem, or some form of depression?

• Are the rates of divorce, crime and lawsuits declining or on the rise?

According to the American Journal of Psychiatry the rates of depression across almost all demographic groups have risen in the United States over the past 10 years, with major depression rising from 3.33 percent of U.S. adults in 1991-1992 to 7.06 percent in 2001-2002: In other words, it has more than doubled. There are no available studies for 2006, but from what one can tell, it is getting worse. Doctors are now prescribing antidepressants to children and adolescents more than ever.
The ideologies and governments of this century that promised happiness, have left people with more material possessions, but less psychological well-being. Many of those people are emotionally bankrupt and unhappy. The demands of life in our current socioeconomic system require that we keep running and running with little or no breaks.
The continuation of this article in which I argue that despite Bhutanese government’s promising attempts to implement tourism as a development tool to promote GNH, the current tourism policy fails to promote the country’s happiness. Check out my article below.
GNH as an alternative approach to measure progress (and explore the pitfalls of GDP), check out Alejandro Adler Braun’s article on Gross National Happiness in Bhutan: A Living Example of an Alternative Approach to Progress.
The conflict between tradition and modernity in the context of tourism in Bhutan and the country’s development philosophy of Gross National Happiness is explored extensively in Sandra Brunet’s article on Tourism Development in Bhutan: Tensions between Tradition and Modernity
Exploration of the concept of GNH further as well as an interesting case of ‘traditional television,’ check out an article in the economist 12/18/2004, Vol. 373 Issue 8406: The pursuit of happiness.
The definition and possibility of leveraging tourism as a development tool in Bhutan, check out Gurung, Dhan, and Klaus Seeland’s Ecotourism in Bhutan Extending Its Benefits to Rural Communities
General positive psychological studies of happiness, please check out an introductory book: Happinessby Daniel Nettle
The hidden political agenda in instituting tourism policy guided by GNH is uncovered in Nyaupane, Gyan P., and Dallen J. Timothy’s Power, Regionalism and Tourism Policy in Bhutan.
For an easy-read general introduction on Gross National Happiness and its implications, please check out an article in the New York Times: A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom, by Andrew Revkin.


[1] Gunther, John. “SACRED SPACE The Art of Happiness.” Featured Articles From The Times Of India. Dec.-Jan. 2003. Web. 23 Apr. 2011. <http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2003-12-20/edit-page/27210047_1_gross-national-happiness-negative-emotions-jigme-singye-wangchuk>.
[2] Gurung, Dhan, and Klaus Seeland. “Ecotourism in Bhutan Extending Its Benefits to Rural Communities.” Annals of Tourism Research 35.2 (2009): 489-508. Print.
[3] Brunet, Sandra, Johannes Bauer, Terry De Lacy, and Karma Tshering. “Tourism Development in Bhutan: Tensions between Tradition and Modernity.” Journal of Sustainable Tourism 9.3 (2001): 243-63. Print.

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