Interview with Damcho Rinzin about sustainable and green tourism in Bhutan

19 november 2019

On behalf of Travel Congress, Lobke Elbers had an interview with Damcho Rinzin about sustainability and smart tourism. Many destinations around the world look up to Bhutan for championing sustainable and green tourism. The unique tourism pricing strategy, strict environmental standards, quality accommodation standards, and immersive interpretation standards (guides) play a key role in ensuring Brand Bhutan is green and sustainable. Though it is also his responsibility, he takes a keen interest in developing, strengthening, and promoting the unique ‘Brand Bhutan’, which he believes is key in promoting and safeguarding the high-end tourism policy of Bhutan. His insights are of importance for the Tourism Strategy of the future to respond to the fast-changing consumer and increasing tourism that we face nowadays.

“Tourism is guided by the policy principle ‘High value, Low volume’. Tourism is also a very important tool to achieve the country’s goal – Gross National Happiness.” In this interview, he shares his knowledge, enthusiasm, and approach to sustainable and green tourism.

What are the major successes and challenges of Bhutan, in achieving sustainability?

“The mandatory requirement to align policies, activities, and programs with the goals of the Gross National Happiness goal (GNH) allows Bhutan to sustain and take the right course. All plans and programs are linked to achieving the overall goal of GNH. GNH has 9 domains, 33 indicators and 123 variables encompassing economic, cultural, human, social and ecological aspects, thus making it one of the best models of sustainable development.

Bhutan has been known for its environmental championship. His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan was awarded the ‘Champion of the earth award’ in 2005. The Constitution of Bhutan mandates for a minimum of 60% forest coverage for all times to come. Currently, Bhutan’s forest coverage is over 72%.

Bhutan received the Earth Award in 2018 at ITB Berlin from Green Destinations. This award is given to recognize and appreciate tourism destinations that are working towards managing tourism and their commitment to sustainable tourism development and promotion. In 2019, Bhutan was awarded the ‘Gold Destination’ certificate after assessing the country under green destination parameters and it is beyond just tourism.

One of the biggest achievements for Bhutan is that the country was declared as carbon negative country. Environmental sustainability is considered very important and it is one of the important indicators included in the Gross National Happiness (GNH).

One of the biggest challenges for Bhutan is the negative impact that affects Bhutan because of the actions of other nations.

As far as tourism is concerned, Bhutan is guided by the policy ‘High value, Low volume’. Because of the limited carrying capacity, both in terms of destination size and infrastructure, Bhutan’s goal is to attract high value, mindful and responsible tourists. This unique policy is supported by a tourism system where all visitors must pay the all-inclusive government prescribed mandatory minimum daily package rate. Unlike most other countries, tourists must plan in advance and their travel plan must be routed through a government-approved and licensed travel agent. Tourists must be kept in government certified accommodation facilities, and use a professional licensed guide. The management of tourism in Bhutan is well coordinated with the support of the clear sustainable and responsible policy. This allows for Bhutan to make the destination more sustainable.”

Bhutan’s goal is to attract high value, mindful and responsible tourists.

How is Bhutan working to support the U.N. SDG’s and which are the key partners?

“Bhutan joined the global community in September 2015, and adopted “The 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It is easy for Bhutan to implement SGDs goals in our plans because of similarities between the goals of GNH and SDGs. These goals are reflected in National Key Result Areas (NKRAs), which will then be adopted by the sectors as Sector Key Result Areas (SKRAs).

As per the report released by the Gross National Commission Secretariat (GNHCS), since the adoption of implementation of the SDGs in 2015, Bhutan has prioritized three SDGs (Goal 1 – No Poverty; Goal 13 – Climate Action; and Goal 15 – Life on Land) for immediate implementation. These goals were prioritized based on urgency to address the issue (No Poverty), Bhutan’s commitment to the global community to remain carbon neutral at all times (Climate Action), and be a champion and world leader by show-casing Bhutan’s success in terms of biodiversity (Life on Land). Our efforts will focus on implementing policies and programs that would have multiple impacts on the number of SDGs.

In terms of partners, the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHCS) is the lead agency and all other government agencies are implementing agencies. The government agencies work closely with private agencies and communities. The United Nations Develop Program (UNDP) office in Thimphu, Bhutan works closely with GNHCS.”

What key skills are needed in terms of managing sustainable tourism?

“The goal of tourism in Bhutan is to promote ‘Bhutan as an inclusive travel destination based on GNHs values’. The current tourism flagship program looks to make Bhutan a ‘Green, Sustainable, Inclusive, Viable and High-value Tourism Destination’.

Therefore, we will need many people – if not all those engaged in tourism – to  have skills and knowledge on developing and promoting Bhutan as a sustainable, green, inclusive, viable and high-value destination. Also, they must also be aware of the benefits of sustainability and the urgent need to sustain destinations.”

Tourists can only trek and stay in designated areas and this is to stop a negative impact on the ecological system and also for the safety of tourists.

Can you describe more of your innovative programs and future plans?

“Tourism in Bhutan is fortunate to have programs and policies that allow tourists to have a good experience and have no or minimal negative impact on ecological system and societies, and have a good economic benefit to the societies.

All tourists are hosted in comfortable and clean tourist accommodation facilities, thus being able to provide them with value for money. Tourists can only trek and stay in designated areas and this is to stop a negative impact on the ecological system and also for the safety of tourists.  All tourists must pay all-inclusive package cost of US$ 200 & 250 (depending on the season) per person per night. This package cost includes US$65, which is called the Sustainable Development Fee (SDF), levied by the government. SDF is used for social developmental activities. So through such programs, all citizens of Bhutan benefit from tourism, unlike in some countries where the tourism benefit goes to only a certain segment. All tourists must use a licensed professional guide at all times. This has many positive values. For example, the guide is a bridge between tourists and the destinations who prevents tourists from engaging in actions that would negatively affect the destination. So such mandatory programs play a vital role in sustaining the destination.

One of the upcoming plans is to initiate a program to educate and have all Bhutanese, if not most on board to understand and support tourism through a program called the ‘Happy Host’. Local people play a vital role in the experience of tourists and more importantly, in the sustainability of the destination. This program will educate the importance of tourism and its sustainability and it will outline their role as happy hosts. Similarly, we plan to certify all tourism entrepreneurs and businesses as green to promote green and sustainable tourism.”

What are the major challenges the world is facing with its continued tourism growth and what are your strategies to address these challenges for Bhutan?

“We have seen many destinations now facing the program of mass tourism. Mass tourism has many negative impacts. It destroys the ecological system and it degrades cultural beauty and affects conservation efforts.

Therefore, Bhutan is working on managing the number of tourists. The focus is more on yield and experience, instead of sheer number. Bhutan will continue to use the existing strategies to manage increasing visitor numbers.”

More about Damcho Rinzin

He works as the Dy. Chief Marketing Officer, Tourism Council of Bhutan. Damcho Rinzin studied Applied Management in Hospitality and Tourism at the University of New Brunswick, Canada and started his career with the then Department of Tourism, Ministry of Trade and Industry as a researcher and marketing officer. He headed the Tourism Promotion Division (Then Marketing and Promotion Division) of Tourism Council of Bhutan from 2014 – 2018, and the Division is responsible for marketing and promotes Bhutan to visitors. During his career as a researcher, he was involved in developing one of the first community-based tourism projects in Bhutan.

Check out his keynote during the Travel Congress.