The next few years are going to be exciting for Bhutan.

Bhutan’s pursuit of gross national happiness amidst global change

Delve into Bhutan's unique development philosophy, prioritising happiness over material wealth, fostering a sustainable society.

Despite the fact that we’re living in the digital age with easy access to information, many citizens, particularly in the Western world, are unaware of the geographic location and unique development vision of the Kingdom of Bhutan. Bhutan is currently a carbon-neutral country. Thanks to its dense forests, Bhutan is a carbon absorber, able to neutralise the carbon emissions of neighbouring countries.

Another interesting fact is that the United Nations points out Bhutan as a successful example of implementing the Sustainable Development Goals.

To what extent have Bhutan’s secular values helped to protect the country from the negative effects of globalisation? Secular values, emphasising respect for both living beings and the environment, along with a strong belief in maintaining natural order, have shielded Bhutan from the adverse impacts of heightened consumption and globalisation, notably environmental degradation and ecosystem destruction.

Luis Manuel Barbosa

The challenge of integrating Bhutan’s innovation and sustainability strategies

Secular values, emphasising respect for both living beings and the environment, along with a strong belief in maintaining natural order, have shielded Bhutan from the adverse impacts of heightened consumption and globalisation, notably environmental degradation and ecosystem destruction.

Bhutan’s environmental protection and conservation policies make it one of the few places where nature remains in its natural state.

Since Bhutan cautiously embraced change and modernization, significant progress has been achieved, driven by the belief that its developmental foundations, rooted in centuries of tradition, are closely tied to Buddhist principles. Consequently, Bhutan has witnessed substantial advancements in its economy and overall development in recent decades.

Bhutan’s development strategy revolves around five-year plans, enabling modernization while upholding its core values of well-being and happiness. These plans now encompass industrial and energy initiatives, broadening the traditional focus on agriculture and infrastructure. Despite the primary sector’s subsistence nature, it holds significant importance in Bhutan’s economy. The country is also making a name for itself in terms of innovation. The group manages the Sustainable Development Goals programme in the country and presents Bhutan’s integrated policy tool as an example of an innovative case. According to the SDG monitoring group, there is a philosophical alignment between the government’s vision and the principles expressed in the UN 2030 Agenda.

Credit. Midjourney

Bhutan is a carbon-neutral country

Bhutan’s small population and sparse development contributed to forest preservation. If the most accessible forests were cut down, the more remote ones were left virtually in their natural state. The forest conservation policy, promoted by the progressive government, balanced the need for revenue with ecological concerns, particularly water and soil conservation. Successfully managing forest resources was fundamental to the local environment and economy.

Carbon neutrality is a term used to demonstrate that the greenhouse effect is avoided through energy (mainly transport), industry, and agriculture, with zero carbon emissions.

Indeed, Bhutan is a carbon absorber, courtesy of its dense forests capable of offsetting carbon emissions from neighbouring nations. However, the escalating impact of climate change triggers the rapid melting of glaciers in Bhutan’s northern region, leading to overflowing glacial lakes that pose a significant threat to valleys inhabited by the Bhutanese. Despite its natural beauty, Bhutan faces considerable vulnerability due to these environmental challenges. But at a time when the planet is battling for its very survival against severe pollution, habitat destruction, and global warming, Bhutan has been able to recognise the danger early on and take a proactive stance.

Controlled tourism as a way of protecting public space

Until King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck began modernising the country in 1960, most of the people who came to Bhutan, apart from Indians, were British explorers. These explorers included Desmond Doig (1961), a friend of the royal family; Professor Augustus Gansser (1963), who studied the geology of the country; and a group of British physicists, Michael Ward, Frederic Jackson, and R. Turner (1964), who organised an expedition to the remote Lunana region.

The coronation of the fourth king in 1974 marked the first time that large numbers of foreign visitors had entered the country. After the coronation, small groups of tourists were allowed into the country to visit the dzongs of Thimphu and Paro. Since then, Bhutan’s tourism industry has developed considerably.

The first group of tourists to pay to see Bhutan arrived in 1974, led by Lars-Eric Lindblad, a tourism pioneer as we know it today. However, Lindblad encouraged the kingdom to limit tourism and charge high fees. The tourism industry has been a major source of foreign exchange earnings for Bhutan since the kingdom was opened to tourists in 1974.

The potential for tourism to generate foreign exchange is significant; however, the Royal Government strategically limits tourist numbers. Bhutan maintains an implicit policy of controlled tourism to preserve its natural environment and ensure the enduring greenery of the Himalayan kingdom.

The tourism sector has grown significantly since the introduction of levies, prompting a reassessment of earlier policies. There is an acknowledgment that these levies hinder the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises and discourage innovation in tourism offerings.

On the other hand, the number of tourists visiting Bhutan has increased at an unprecedented rate, and the number of tour operators in Bhutan has also increased, suggesting that the time for change has arrived.

As with all previous tourism-related decisions, this change must be thoughtful, cautious, and in line with the Kingdom’s overarching goal of Gross National Happiness (GNH).

The next few years are going to be exciting for Bhutan.


Journal reference

Barbosa, L. (2022). Fostering innovation and sustainability in Bhutan’s net zero economy. In Proceedings of the 88th International Scientific Conference on Economic and Social Development (ESD) – “Roadmap to NetZero Economies and Businesses” (pp. 223-233). Heriot-Watt University, Dubai, United Arab Emirates. ISSN 1849-7535.

Luís has an extensive career as a C-suite executive across multiple business sectors, including multi-sector corporations and government agencies in Europe, GCC, and Asia. He is currently based in Singapore, leading operations, digital transformation, and innovation programmes across Asia Pacific in the FMCG sector. He is a jury member of the European Commission Innovation Council (EIC) and an EDF evaluator. Luís is completing a PhD in Communication for Development and a Masters in AI. He is an alumnus of INSEAD and MIT and an invited lecturer in Masters programmes on Innovation and Sustainability at the most prestigious business schools and universities.