High-profile visit prompts interest in tours to 'idyllic' country but cloaks hardline nationalistic policy

Bhutan royals trip masks rights issues


Staff Writer

The recent visit by Bhutan’s king and queen helped raise the country’s profile in Japan and even spurred interest in travel to the country, but few Japanese seem to be aware that Bhutan, often portrayed as an idyllic Himalayan getaway, has forced more than 70,000 Nepalese to leave the country as refugees, many of them stripped of their citizenship.

The Nov. 15-20 visit by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema — which included meetings with the Imperial family, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and schoolchildren in disaster-hit Fukushima Prefecture — received widespread media coverage, and their faces regularly appeared on television and in newspapers.

Following their visit, GNH Travel & Services Co. saw inquiries about tours to Bhutan quadruple and the number of hits on its website jump tenfold, company director Masatoshi Honma said.

“After the royal couple’s visit, Japanese have become much more familiar with Bhutan,” Honma said.

Kaze-Travel Co., which sells travel packages to destinations off the beaten track, such as Mongolia and Tibet, also received a spike in inquiries about Bhutan after the young royal couple’s visit.

Even the country’s biggest travel agencies, including industry leader JTB Corp., reported a sharp rise in customers asking about tours to the small nation — population 700,000 — sandwiched between China and India.

But the interest has yet to translate into actual travel bookings to the remote country, the agencies said, blaming the lack of direct flights from Japan that makes traveling to Bhutan a lengthy and expensive proposition.

According to the websites of Kaze-Travel and JTB Grand Tours & Services Inc., a package tour to Bhutan costs between ¥300,000 and ¥700,000 for six to 11 days. Travelers usually fly from Tokyo’s Haneda airport to Bangkok aboard a Thai Airways flight, and then from Bangkok to the town of Paro in Bhutan on Drukair, Bhutan’s national carrier.

One of the issues that received a lot of media coverage during their trip was Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) index to measure progress, rather than the standard gross domestic product yardstick normally used for gauging economic growth and thus national prosperity. The results of a local poll in which 97 percent of Bhutanese declared themselves happy with their lives was also widely reported.

But few Japanese appear to realize that the sky-high level of contentment indicated by the poll came only after Bhutan had kicked out tens of thousands of its citizens of Nepalese descent.

According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ website, Bhutan toughened its nationalistic policy in the 1980s, forcing tens of thousands of nationals of Nepalese descent to leave the country and turned them into refugees.

Most of those who were forced to leave Bhutan sought asylum in Nepal. As of December 2010, the number of refugees from Bhutan stood at around 76,100, of whom some 74,500 lived in Nepal, UNHCR spokeswoman Yuki Moriya told The Japan Times recently.

“Whenever I hear about Bhutan’s GNH, I feel really strange,” Moriya said.