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Shangri-la in the 21st Century

Bhutan is one of the more exotic travel destinations. It remains a secluded, somewhat insular land, nestled within the inaccessible southeastern slopes of the great Himalayan mountain range. Since the country opened its doors to tourists, annual numbers have never exceeded a few thousand. More tourists visit neighboring Nepal in one year than have ever visited Bhutan. A major reason for this lies in the government's cautious and pragmatic approach to modernization in general and tourism in particular. Such insulation has meant that present-day Bhutan remains the only of the Himalayan Buddhist Kingdoms to have retained its independence and overall traditional character. That the Bhutanese appear to enjoy a simple though fulfilling life within landscapes of immense natural beauty, serves to promote the impression of a hidden paradise, a mythical Shangri-la.

Bhutan's Tourism Policy
Tourism in Bhutan is heavily regulated. The Bhutanese government is particularly aware of the potential dangers of uncontrolled tourism to the sustainability of Bhutan's environment and traditional culture. It has therefore tried to limit negative impacts by putting in place the following rules: a high minimum entry fee (an all-inclusive flat rate per night); all visitors must travel through an authorized Bhutanese agent; and tourists may not visit certain specified regions and holy sites. The volume of visitors and the scope of their traveling will be gradually expanded in line with capacities to suitably absorb them. For more information, you may visit the Department of Tourism, Bhutan web site.

The Tourism Industry
Bhutan began to welcome tourists in the mid-1970s through a predominantly state-run infrastructure. The tourist industry was then cautiously privatized in 1991 and further liberalized in 1998. There are now 80 authorized agents. The largest five companies handle about 55% of total tourist numbers. The market, though remaining small and shaped by government regulations, is becoming progressively more competitive, with significant increases in the market-share of mid-sized enterprises. Tourist facilities, such as hotels and restaurants, are expanding and improving. Most are of a reasonable standard, however the variety of service does not match that available in most places around the world.

Bhutan's main attraction is the state of the country as a whole. Because it has been so secluded from modern influences, its traditional Buddhist culture and society, and rich and diverse environment, have remained to a great extent intact. It is therefore a fascinating place to simply visit and explore. By far the most popular tourist activity is cultural touring. Many choose to arrange a trip to coincide with one of the annual Buddhist festivals. The other popular activity is trekking, mostly into the country's little-visited mountainous northern belt. Visitor arrivals are concentrated in the spring and autumn. There have been recent efforts to encourage more visitors during the quiet seasons and diversify into other more focused activities such as biking, rafting and bird-watching.

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