SAM's Adventures

A vision of happiness

By Karma Tshering PhD '11

Bhutanese bird

Destiny happens in the least expected way. Sometimes it may be through our actions creating a path, or many times it just happens. My connection with Australia began in 1997. As a fairly young conservationist with a passion to contribute to my country’s rich natural heritage, I was requested by a local travel company in Bhutan to give a talk on conservation and national parks’ management to a group of enthusiastic tourists. They were from Australia, mainly vets interested in wildlife.

What was meant to be one of those usual presentations has turned out to be a lifetime association with the lovely people from Australia. This event led to forging stronger ties, with a memorandum of understanding that was enacted, founded on the principles of cooperation and friendship. Ten years later I am in Australia with my family to pursue a doctoral program on sustainable tourism with the University. The lovely country town of Orange, NSW was our home for over three years. It’s no surprise that we were the first Bhutanese in Orange, and had no option but to expand many people’s geography, in explaining where Bhutan is. However, by chance we bumped into a couple who were among the group visiting Bhutan in 1997. This karmic reconnection with Judith [nee Wyatt] (DipPhys ’69) and Andrew Hansen (BVSc ’67 MVSc ’00) blossomed into a fulfilling friendship. As an old Chinese saying goes – true friendships are made through meeting by chance and not by purpose.

Likewise through this academic journey my life was greatly enriched through close associations with many friends in Australia. Although my initial inspiration for environmental conservation was ignited by US National Park rangers during my six months’ attachment to a few of the American national parks, the Australian association provided the impetus. Many of my Australian friends hold strong admiration for my country, Bhutan. Located in a historically volatile political region, it is a small, land-locked country sandwiched between two giant neighbors, India and China. Bhutan has not only survived as an independent country but under the visionary leadership of its kings, the nation has thrived on peace, stability and prosperity.

Scenic shot of temple and prayer flags

The country may not be rich or prosperous in terms of commercial industries or technology but is significant in its spiritual well-being. The country is held in awe for its development philosophy based on Gross National Happiness – as opposed to the conventional economic measurement of Gross National Product. As a nation in pursuit of happiness via a middle-path approach, the government has identified four key pillars to uphold this vision – Environmental Conservation, Cultural Preservation, Equitable Socio-economic Development, and Good Governance.

Bhutan existed as a group of hostile fiefdoms until the early 17th century, when Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, who fled Tibet and religious persecution, unified it. In 1907 came the appointment of the first King of Bhutan, and the population of a little over 700,000 celebrated 100 years of successful monarchy in 2008.
The then reigning fourth king, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck (53) abdicated the throne for his son, announcing a democratic form of governance. Bhutan has now peacefully transformed into a democratic state and is working hard towards achieving the King’s vision of Gross National Happiness.

Bhutan’s natural environment plays a vital link in upholding this vision. The country ranges from the south’s subtropical plains to the sub-alpine Himalayan in the north, where some peaks exceed 7500 metres. Under the king’s dynamic leadership, Bhutan now stands out as a haven for conservation with 72 per cent of the country under forest cover, harbouring many species of biological significance. Fifty-one per cent of the country is designated under the protected areas system, comprising national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, nature reserves and biological corridors.

Photo of mountains and lake

Buddhism is Bhutan’s main religion and the government has framed stringent conservation policies to protect wildlife. This, however, is at the cost of local people losing crops and livestock to tigers, leopards, snow leopards, wild dogs, bears, pigs, deer, elephants, monkeys and so on. The people are a vital link in nature conservation and strengthening this link is fundamental to achieving conservation objectives. An incentive-based approach is necessary and an integrated approach that combines conservation and development is being pursued. Therefore, recognising this situation, I chose to examine sustainable tourism development as a viable tool both for conservation and community development as a theme for my PhD research.

The research investigated the significance of tourism for conservation and determined the type, intensity and structure of sustainable tourism development, based on a participatory planning process that will drive the development of remote communities and strengthen one of the world’s most extensive (per country area) protected areas networks. In Bhutan, a country with limited potential for industrialisation, but with a unique culture and an intact natural environment, the capacity of tourism to be a major force for development is apparent. It is, however, also known that tourism can undermine cultural values and degrade the natural local environment. This research for the protected areas system, before tourism gains momentum, can hopefully be a major milestone in preventing the undesirable from happening. The major finding from the research was that community participation is vital for tourism engagement and this has stimulated the people’s support for the tourism resources, which are largely based on the cultural and natural heritage. The end result is participation towards conservation and protection of these precious resources, thereby generating a win-win situation for both conservation and development.

Karma Tshering

Karma Tshering

Bhutan’s tourism policy is founded on the principle of sustainability. Aware that tourism has the potential to create a high impact on the culture of the people ever since tourism began in 1974, the government has followed a cautious policy. Based on the concept of ‘High Value and Low Volume’, all travel to Bhutan is well regulated through a package tour with a minimum payment of $US200 per day, per tourist (this is to increase to $US250 from 2012). This includes food (three meals), accommodation in standard hotels, ground transport, and daily services of an accompanying local guide. Tourism development in Bhutan is effective in creating jobs for local people and minimising revenue leakage – a common problem faced by many developing countries.

After returning to Bhutan on completion of my PhD I have resumed my job with the Department of Forests and Park Services and find myself very fortunate to be in a position to translate my academic knowledge into action and contribute towards the happiness vision.

PS: In May, Karma Tshering received his PhD in the Great Hall. He was accompanied by his cousin, to whom he dedicated the thesis, for putting him on the path to education. He celebrated his achievement with his friends in Australia – a place that has inspired him to further the happiness vision for his country. Learn more about Bhutan for the visitor at