It’s an icy-cold December morning at the Dochula Pass in western Bhutan, about an hour’s drive north of the capital, Thimphu near a ridge in the lower Himalayas. The royal family of this tiny mountain nation is about to arrive, and I’m in a crowd of more than a thousand people, including most of Bhutan’s top government officials and several dozen monks, who have been waiting for them in a clearing under a cypress tree. The gorgeous royal newlyweds — the fifth king of Bhutan and his young queen — and his father the fourth king will soon inaugurate a festival here, and everything is ready. A red carpet decorated with swirls of colored rice has been laid out for their feet; it ends at a tall tent festooned with the king’s raven crown, where they will sit on sheepskin-lined armchairs to protect them from below-freezing temperatures. The rest of us warm up with butter tea, momos and an occasional nip of homemade rice wine tinted pink by sandalwood.
As if on cue, the mist from the mountains rolls into the clearing just as the monks start the low drone of their long trumpets. A line of dancers in swirling robes above bare feet begin their slow rhythmic arcs as the royal procession approaches. The two kings emerge from the mist wearing identical sashes of royal saffron yellow. With the queen, they make a ceremonial offering of grains to the local deities of this mountain so the tshechu — a festival of Bhutanese songs and dances — can begin. The first is the graceful dance of the dakinis, or celestial nymphs. Then a comic crowd-pleaser, Gadpo-Gadmo, the dance of the old men and women, in which there is a great deal of crazed lurching around and bawdy raising of skirts.
On its surface, this tshechu looks like so many in Bhutan, a ritual for which the Dochula monastery has been preparing for months. In fact, the Dochula tshechu is like no other in Bhutan — it is new, an invented tradition “to celebrate the achievement and bravery of the Fourth Druk Gyalpo [the current king’s father] and the armed forces during the military expedition of 2003 against foreign militants,” according to Bhutan’s official newspaper, Kuensel. It marks a dramatic but little-known episode in Bhutan’s recent history. Bhutan was under intense pressure from its southern neighbor, India, to flush out an insurgent group that had found sanctuary along the restive open border. Facing an ultimatum — India would have sent in its own troops to get rid of them — the fourth king led the Royal Bhutanese Army personally, a decision unknown to most of the country and one that has added to his larger-than-life mystique. The king’s eldest wife, the Queen Mother, built the monastery at Dochula, the site of the festival, after his safe return.
Karma Ura, the country’s foremost cultural historian, spent the last two years creating the tshechu, which the Royal Bhutanese Army has instituted as an annual event. Ura designed the embroidery on the dancer’s costumes and the royal tent and choreographed the dances, many of which are performed to contemporary songs written by Bhutan’s chief abbott. There are subtle modernizations: the dakinis’ dance is performed by actual women, rather than simply imagined as one done by heavenly beings, and nearly all the dances in the festival are performed by lay people, soldiers and members of the Royal Academy for Performing Arts, rather than monks. The birth of a new tradition was significant enough to attract Francoise Pommaret, a French historian who has written extensively about Bhutan’s culture. She pronounced it “great.”
Academics, however, are not the only audience for this tshechu. At one point, during the Gadpo-Ganmo dance, the song addresses the gathered crowd — husbands, wives, dignitaries, and even the “foreign tourists.” It’s a hint that this festival is a small part of a major effort to expand tourism in Bhutan, a country that has been traditionally wary of outsiders. Bhutan’s government—it held its first elections in 2008—recently commissioned McKinsey to study its tourism industry and found that it has “extreme seasonality,” with tourist traffic concentrated in the east of the country during the spring and summer, says Kesang Wangdi, director general of the Tourism Council of Bhutan. “We’re spreading the benefits across season, across time, across geography.” On Dec. 17, Bhutan inaugurated a new domestic air service, which will open up the eastern and southern parts of the country to tourism for the first time.
Festival tourism is its primary tourism “product,” Wangdi says, and Bhutan wants to develop more — wellness tourism, nature-based tourism, conference tourism, adventure tourism, community-based tourism. He recently did a roadshow in France and has made several trips to India to court the enormous market of affluent tourists living right next door. A new Taj hotel in the capital, he hopes, will raise Bhutan’s profile among India’s new rich. (The extensive coverage of the recent royal wedding, and the royal honeymoon in India, also didn’t hurt.) “We were invisible to the exclusive, discerning tourists from India,” he says. In the off-season, he hopes that Indian package tourists, who are not subject to visas or Bhutan’s high minimum daily tariff ($200, soon to rise to $250), will fill in the gaps.
Bhutan has a reputation as a relatively untouched Asian tourist destination, but that’s starting to change as the government tries to more than triple the number of tourists to 100,000 by the end of 2012, up from less than 30,000 in 2008. This year’s total has already passed 60,000. This ambitious effort has its skeptics, including some established tour operators, who worry that an influx of visitors will hurt the “unspoiled mountain paradise” image that attracts high-end tourism. Wangdi says the tourism council is sensitive to those concerns and will make “continuous assessments” to make sure that the number of tourists never exceeds the “absorptive capacity” of Bhutan’s culture. Still, he says that Bhutan has to be ready to accept a little bit of the bad — traffic, litter and crowds — in order to improve livelihoods for vendors, taxi drivers and local artisans. “If you want zero impact on a culture, then you have zero tourism,” Wangdi says. “When you open the windows for some fresh air, a few flies may come in.”
Whatever the trade-offs, Wangdi insists that Bhutan will never allow itself to turn into another kitschy tourist trap on the backpacker trail. “What you see here is not put on for tourists,” he says. Up on the Dochula Pass, at least, that still seems to hold true. The crowd is full of families, who sit patiently on the frozen ground and seem genuinely moved by the chance to honor the fourth king and enjoy a rare sighting of the new royal couple. There are just a handful of tourists here, and they’re the only ones snapping photos.