“One of our biggest challenges is this locked mountain kingdom,” a Bhutanese politician complained to me during my visit to the tiny Himalayan land of the thunder dragon in late 2022. I would join the prime minister, members of the government and enthusiastic locals on an inaugural walk along the new Trans Bhutan Trail – a revitalized network of ancient trade routes.
Like many of the tourists in my party, I was fascinated by the mystery behind the golden temples and snow-capped peaks in a country that only opened to tourism 50 years ago.
Bhutan’s draw card has always been elusive. A nation built on the principles of Buddhism and the philosophy of “Mass National Happiness” seems so foreign and alien in a world booming under capitalism that Bhutan might as well be on Mars.
Education and healthcare are free, there are no billboards or big fast food chains (junk food addicts have their own KFC in the capital Thimphu – Karma Fried Chicken) and it was the first country in the world to be declared carbon negative. It all adds up to a real-life Shangri-La.
But things are definitely changing. At the end of last year in an address to the nation, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck announced ambitious plans for a new urban development that intends to put Bhutan on the economic map. The 250,000-acre (2.5 percent of mountainous land) Gelephu Care City will include residential neighborhoods, healthcare, spiritual and cultural centers, a university and an airport.
“The Gelephu Master Plan gives form to His Majesty’s vision to create a city that will be a cradle of growth and innovation while still grounded in Bhutanese nature and culture,” says Bjarke Ingels, founder and creative director of Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), the architects. commissioned to see through the ambitious project. “We imagine the Mindful City as a place that could not be anywhere else.”
It is an admirable concept; an attempt to balance the demands of economic development with the needs of spiritual well-being. But the cynic in me questions whether that is humanly possible. Could Bhutan’s lofty urban dream be anything more than a Buddhist Disneyland or a Nirvanic Parcs?
Tune into the outside world
To be fair, Bhutan’s rulers have been in trouble for some time. A large exodus of disaffected young people seeking better job opportunities in Australia, India and Kuwait has seen 14,000 people (2 percent of the population) leave the country between 2018 and 2023, according to data from Paro International Airport.
“If we don’t find the right solution, our population may dwindle to the point where we have more shops than customers, more restaurants than diners, and more houses than tenants,” His Majesty said in his public address.
When I first visited Bhutan in 2010, the internet connection was patchy. Now 3G is everywhere and it’s hard to resist the trappings of the material world outside. Even before that, the arrival of television had an impact. “We used to eat dinner in a circle, but now we all sit in a U shape,” a Bhutanese local told me.
Bitcoin and biodiversity
There is a need for development but without a doubt it comes at a cost – that’s usually the environment. Part of the Mindfulness City master plan is a new hydroelectric dam, an industry that has overtaken tourism as the country’s main source of income.
But organizers insist nature is at the forefront of the project: there will be low-density and low-rise residential areas, clean-energy transport, and biodiversity corridors will allow elephants and other wildlife to move freely. Since power lines in the Phobjikha Valley have been carefully laid underground to avoid the flocks of black-necked cranes that arrive from Tibet every October, it is highly conceivable that these claims will continue.
In addition, future development plans are mostly in the less invasive technology area: blockchain projects, green cryptocurrency mining and drone testing are already underway. “With our cool temperatures and hydropower, we could become a major hub for data centers,” one ambitious Bhutanese politician told me.
The Bhutan blueprint
Bitcoins are far from the auspicious pennies showering Buddhas in temples, but all these changes have positive benefits for tourism as well. Considered by pilots to be one of the most difficult airports to land in, Paro has limited flights and expensive seats sell out quickly. A new airport in a better location will certainly have easier access.
Jigme Dorji, a local guide who works through the TravelLocal platform, has predicted that the Mindful City could even become a blueprint for future tourism.
“It comes at a time when slow travel and prioritizing rest and well-being are at the forefront of travelers’ minds. There are aspects of Bhutanese tourism that set the country as a pioneer that we can all learn from – especially preserving cultural traditions and avoiding extra tourism.”
Bhutan has always been a master of intrigue: visitors will undoubtedly flock to Gelephu to see what it’s like.
“It will take the collective effort of all Bhutanese to achieve this,” says a spokesperson for the Mindfulness City of Bhutan media team, aware of the many challenges we face. “Bhutan must make up, in energy and intellect, what it lacks in numbers and economic capacity.”
The gates of the kingdom are well and truly open. Time will tell if its potential can be unlocked.