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Ecotourism in a Bhutan Village

By Robyn Ray

A village in Bhutan
A village in Bhutan. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.

In Shinghkhar, Bhutan, a pastoral yak-herding village of about 250 people, there is a growing concern over the impact of tourism.

I stayed in Shingkhar for three weeks, before and during its annual tsechu (or religious festival). Every morning I woke to the chanting of the young student monks (gomchens) as they marched up the steep hill and past my window. Drums, cymbals, chanting, and singing resound continuously as the ceremonies and rituals are rehearsed. The gomchens are the ones responsible for passing on the rituals to the new generation.

The money spent to send the young monks to school brings double value to the village: It revitalizes the institution of gomchens and creates role models for the young people of the village. A forestry project which offered high wages lured the villagers away from tending to their herds and crops and introduced the desire for quick and easy money. When the project was suddenly abandoned, the villagers had no source of income and farming and herding no longer seemed honorable or respectable.

Shinghkhar must now find other ways to survive. Tourism is one possibility, but how can the village benefit from the beauty of such places without destroying them in the process? Above all, how is the benefit returned to the source—to the village and villagers of Shingkhar?

In response to these concerns Masangang Tours and Travel, an agency dedicated to the preservation of Bhutan’s environment and traditions in Bhutan, has built a guest house in the traditional Bhutanese manner, including an herbal stone bath. They limit the number of tourists who can come to the annual tsechu (religious festival) and they are careful to educate prospective tourists in the ecology and traditions of Shingkhar.

The agency also encourages the development of village crafts, which are taught and controlled by the gomchens and sold for the support of the institution of gomchens (the young student monks, who are responsible for passing on the rituals).

For More Info

The Guest House at Shingkhar has 16 beds and room for three tents in the courtyard. Tourists can come and help teach English, mathematics, or science. Researchers, consultants, and those with special interests in the environmental and agricultural sciences can come for work-study programs. Artists and craftspersons can come to study the village crafts and sacred arts.

ROBYN RAY writes from New York, NY.

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