One important idea of sovereignty for any nation is its ability to control its borders.
This idea gets more important for smaller countries, especially when they are surrounded by larger countries, constantly moving demographics and do not have the absorptive capacity.
Bhutan is in an unenviable position with a population of around 700,000 and the size of roughly Switzerland, surrounded by much larger countries and demographics.
This is why it has always been critical for Bhutan’s sovereignty and even survival to have the ability to control the movement of large numbers of people across its international borders.
Of late an emerging problem for Bhutan is in the explosion of the number of regional tourists coming into Bhutan.
This number has soared from 50,722 in 2012 to 152,896 by October 2017 which is a 300 percent jump in just five years.
On the other hand the numbers of international tourists have only increased marginally from 54,685 in 2012 to 54,641 until October 2017.
This issue is not about comparing the regional and international tourists, but the sheer increase in the volume of regional tourists which is unsustainable for Bhutan and already having an impact on Bhutan.
The impact is environmental, cultural, demographic, traffic jams, road safety, nuisance creation, stress on limited resources like water, pressure on limited infrastructure like roads and sewage etc.
In the medium term the clear and present danger is of Bhutan losing its high value and low impact tourism brand value and becoming just another overcrowded and overused South Asian hill station.
In the slightly longer term if the numbers are not controlled the above impacts will get worse and, there will be the inevitable domestic political backlash which will be translated swiftly into the diplomatic sphere.
Therefore, it is important to understand for Bhutan’s neighbors and particularly India that the Tourism Council of Bhutan’s (TCB) proposals to regulate regional tourism in Bhutan should not be just seen from the point of Bhutan wanting to protect its tourism brand value, but that there are deeper underpinnings.
So far, the Indian Embassy in Thimphu has traditionally not hesitated to highlight even minor issues faced by Indian visitors and vehicles coming into Bhutan, citing the commercial trade and transit agreement between the two countries.
With such a huge increase in numbers, mainly from India, the Indian government will have to take the bigger picture and the longer term view into account over Bhutan’s core concerns.
Good ties and trust between the two nations don’t just rest on economics, but it more importantly rests on respecting each other’s security and sovereignty.
New Delhi should cooperate with Thimphu on this important issue.
The diplomatic friendship between the two nations count for more than letting relations get defined by unregulated mass tourism.
“Walking is a virtue, tourism is a deadly sin.”