Ecotourism in Bhutan

Posted on 07 February 2012

WWF kick-starts sustainable tourism
Wangchuck Centennial National Park (WCP) in northern Bhutan is the country’s largest conservation area and a huge draw for tourists, yet many of the region’s residents struggle to make a living. Under a new livelihood development programme, WWF and the Royal Government of Bhutan have developed an ecotourism project – ‘the homestay programme’ – designed to stem the region’s rural-urban migration, and distribute tourist-related funds amongst the rural population.

“The problem is that most travel companies and tourists come to WCP with their own guides, their own tents, their own food and stoves, and walk straight past the villages – leaving nothing but footprints”, says Kingzang Namgay, WWF-Bhutan’s Country Representative. “So we established ‘the homestay programme’, which offers the tourists the chance to stay in a traditional Bhutanese home, and provides the homeowners with an opportunity to benefit from the growing tourist industry.”

So far 21 homes have opened their doors to the tourists – all of them situated within WCP, Bhutan’s largest National Park, covering almost 5000km2. The Park is a vital addition to the Eastern Himalayan conservation complex, harbouring some of the region’s most iconic species (including the snow leopard, takin and Himalayan wolf), as well as the source waters of some of Bhutan’s largest rivers (including the Manas). Yet the Park’s establishment in 2008 brought a new set of challenges to the region’s residents.

“Agriculture is the region’s primary source of livelihood,” says Kingzang, “but the wild nature of the region means that human-wildlife conflicts are common – farming here is a constant battle against the wildlife. Pigs and deer eat your crops and big cats and wolves eat your livestock.” And now, given the region’s designation as a National Park, the farmers have to adhere to a new set of rules – “they can no longer just kill the wolves or wild boar”. This added challenge of sustainable agriculture, combined with the growing population of the region, means that many of the young men have left the rural villages to look for work elsewhere.

“Many of WCP’s remote villages tend to be full of young girls and women with no jobs and limited educations”, says Kingzang, “and yet they live in one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions”. Recognizing this, WCP (co-managed by WWF-Bhutan and the Royal Government of Bhutan), developed ‘the homestay programme’. “What we are aiming for is for homestays to be dotted throughout the region, so that tourists can trek between the villages and stay with locals, rather than camping or staying in larger resorts”, says Kingzang; “providing the villagers with an alternative source livelihood in the form of payment for rooms, meals, drinks etc.”

The ecotourism project offers a lot more than just economic benefits though. By creating an incentive to preserve the integrity of the park (in the form of its attraction to visitors) the WCP Rangers hope that the villagers will become WCP’s primary custodians; not only promoting a more sustainable lifestyle in themselves, but also encouraging them to deter outside threats such as poaching. This combination of a reduced rural-urban migration, and a new motivation to maintain traditions, should also ensure the survival of village culture – something Pema Lahzom, one of the homestay owners is keen to point out:

“My grandfather was a farmer here, my father is a farmer here and now I am a farmer here to”, says Pema, speaking outside her family home in WCP, “but I only farm for my family and guests – everything we eat comes from our land.” Pema and her family receive around 10 visitors a month, which she says is sufficient to live off – “we earn a lot more than we did before the homestay programme, a lot more than just farming”. At present the WCP Rangers manage the homestay programme to ensure that all the homestays receive the same number guests; “They put some here and some there, and they keep it fair – we are very thankful to WCP and WWF for their involvement”.

So far WWF’s involvement had been largely financial – supporting the homestay’s with some of the required improvements, such as restroom facilities, as well as paying for hospitality training, and linking them with the Tourist Council of Bhutan. However, now that the basics are in place the girls are keen to develop the program themselves; “We have decided to form our own homestay committee, and look out for own guests – it will no longer be the park’s responsibility, but our own”. Attracting guests will be their biggest challenge, but as Kingzang says, the project has turned many of the young girls into small entrepreneurs; “I think they can turn this program into something truly sustainable”.

With the governments of the region committing to ‘create an interconnected mosaic of conservation spaces across the Eastern Himalayas’, at the recent Climate Summit for a Living Himalayas, livelihood development projects, such as ‘the homestay programme’, will prove vital in ensuring the residents of the conservation spaces are provided with sustainable livelihood alternatives, and that rural-urban migration is minimized. Ecotourism, in the form of homestays, could therefore play a key role in the sustainable development of the Eastern Himalayas, with rural households opening their doors to tourists across the entire region.

Booking information 
WCP is currently working with the Tourist Council of Bhutan on a mechanism that will allow visitors to book themselves into homestays. In the meantime please contact WCP via their website >>
The tiny village of Nangsiphel in Bumthang, northern Bhutan, has been the first village to try out WWF's new ecotourism project.
So far 21 households have opened their doors to tourists, providing local food and a place to sleep, as well as added extras such as traditional 'hot-stone baths' and cultural programmes...
The Homestay Programme gives tourists the chance to stay in a beautiful Bhutanese home, and experience a very traditional way of life.
Pema Lahzom runs her family home as homestay along with her 3 sisters. The Homestay Programme has meant they can stay and work at home, rather than leave the village to look for work.
Everything Pema serves her guests is homegrown and homemade. Including the breakfast buckwheat pancakes...
Farming in the village has picked-up and diversified since the arrival of the guests. With Mr. Lahzom and his neighbours reviving traditional practices such as making butter, cheese and honey to provide to the homestays...