The trip to Bhutan is worthwhile just for the landing in Paro. As you descend towards the Himalayas, a mountain ridge creeps towards you until it’s seconds from clipping the left wing of the plane. The Airbus jet then banks like a fighter and spirals irregularly downward in a tightening, oblong valley. Finally, lined up for landing, the plane dodges a rock outcropping with a S-turn just a few hundred feet off the ground and right before touchdown. I later learn there are only 17 pilots in the world who can make that landing; they train in the the fjords of Norway. There is no more fitting arrival for a place that truly takes your breath away.
You could spend months in this small country and still not see everything; the terrain is rugged and difficult and the narrow roads (not even a full two lanes wide) treacherous when you consider the long fall if your driver makes a mistake. So you try not to concentrate on the dump trucks barreling towards your car and instead on the towering peaks, wisps of clouds protecting a Buddhist monastery high on a ridge, or the unique, ornate architecture of the farmhouses perched among terraced fields. Cars go only so far here; I spoke to the head of the microfnance program at BDFC (a development bank), he’s struggling to serve people who live a two-day walk from the nearest town. Very few people get to visit Bhutan, although that is changing quickly as the country prepares itself to welcome far more tourists in coming years who want to experience a people who have chosen to pursue Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of mere GDP. The government tourism board has settled on a brand: Happiness is a Place. I think that’s fairly accurate.
But I had not come just to sightsee. I had the opportunity to spend the Spring semester working with a client here for Prof. McElhaney’s Strategic CSR class – the government holding company (DHI), which owns the largest and most prominent private-sector companies, was looking for help pursuing GNH (more here [hyperlink to http://responsiblebusiness.haas.berkeley.edu/Newsletter/Vol4/index.html%5D). As I was in the region for IBD, DHI invited me to present the framework we developed to senior managers at the portfolio companies. What’s striking is the level of commitment the senior leaders of these of these companies have to promoting the happiness of the Bhutanese people, not merely running a good business or turning a profit and giving back to the community. For instance, supporting the many monasteries and temples is a high priority, not because its good publicity (these companies often go out of their way to hide their giving) but because Buddhism is intimately connected with Bhutanese culture.
The unique culture is a main draw for tourists. And tourism revenues have spurred economic growth. There is construction all over the capital, Thimphu, which has grown considerably in recent years, and locals have ever-greater access to modern conveniences, particularly flat-screen TVs with Hindi movies and the Discovery Channel, and the internet. In fact, the pace of change is acute; the impressive Dzongs (ancient fortresses) that look as they did in the 16th century mask the worry among some that a the transition has already started and cannot be stopped. Sandwiched between India and China, I suppose that’s not surprising.
But for now, people seem genuinely happy; more than some other countries I think. They’re quick to share tea under roof of a prayer wheel as you wait out the rain. Or to recount the histories painted on the walls inside the temples. Or to crack a joke as you settle in to a hot stone bath at a farmhouse after a hike to the Tiger’s Nest (I didn’t just snag that picture off of Wikipedia – the place is amazing). So if you get the chance to go visit, take it. And for those considering the CSR class, there just might be a follow-up project again, next year.