In elegant white cursive, the words “mountains, monasteries and magic” accompany an image of a picturesque Buddhist temple delicately balanced on the edge of a rugged cliff face.
This is the scene chosen by travel guide giant Lonely Planet to encapsulate what the Himalayan hermit kingdom of Bhutan has to offer visitors, as one of the guide’s “Top experiences in Asia.”
Though the company behind the iconic blue spine travel guides has always been criticised for homogenising and euphemising myriad cultures and societies, Lonely Planet’s most recent glossy depiction of Bhutan seems more fitting for a clichéd corporate motivational poster hanging above the water cooler in a dreary office break room.
In reality, the land of the Thunder Dragon is definitely no Shambhala.
Bhutan has developed an image as a tranquil Buddhist paradise. This naïve polaroid of a peaceful nation untouched by the trappings of the modern world is a convenient mask for a country plagued by a legacy of violent ethnic cleansing.
Between 1987 and 1992 the Bhutanese government systematically implemented a series of ethno-nationalist policies targeting the Lhotsampa minority who mostly resided in the south of the country. Programs which enforced the wearing of national dress in public places and the banning of Nepali in Lhotsampa schools quickly escalated to forced evictions, rape and human rights violations.
Vidhyapati Mishra, writing from a UNHCR refugee camp in 2013, described his father’s appalling ordeal with government officials in an op-ed published in The New York Times.
“They pressed him down with heavy logs, pierced his fingers with needles, served him urine instead of water, forced him to chop firewood all day with no food. Sometimes, they burned dried chillies in his cell just to make breathing unbearable.”
After 91 days of torture Mishra’s father agreed to sign what was called a “voluntary migration form”, giving him a week to leave the country his family had inhabited for four generations.
When Lonely Planet, the largest travel guide publisher in the word presents Bhutan as a fanciful Buddhist utopia – “as close as it gets” to Shangri-La – it perpetuates a narrative which discounts the experiences of over 100,000 Bhutanese refugees, many of whom are still waiting for resettlement in Nepalese camps.
A desire to create the next big ‘undiscovered gem’ for adventurers has seemingly compromised Lonely Planet’s commitment to responsible travel. The actions of the publisher instead help bolster Bhutan’s efforts to be perceived internationally as a ‘happy country’. The champion of the International Day of Happiness at the UN and governed by Gross Nation Happiness over Gross Domestic Product, Bhutan has skilfully avoided significant international penalties for a protracted refugee crisis which remains unresolved even today.
This however is not a call for Lonely Planet to damage the reputation of Bhutan.
As a small country jammed between China and India, the hermit Kingdom faces a future of unknowns as it enters the international arena. With little military might or economic power Bhutan will soon discover that its greatest resource is its rich and varied culture.
Its position as the intersection between Tibetan, Himalayan and Hindu cultures is a recipe for a strong sustainable tourism industry. It is the responsibility of publishers like Lonely Planet to highlight this diversity – laying a path for potential future reconciliation.