By Yeung Xintian, newsroom intern
IF you want to find happiness, don't go looking for it.
However, this piece of wisdom from French author Albert Camus apparently doesn't apply to Bhutan.
Touted as 'the last Shangri-La' in travel brochures, the 'world's happiest country' has seen an explosive increase in the number of fascinated people seeking out this improbably happy nation that has few, if no tourist amenities.
According to Pacific Asia Travel Association (Pata) statistics on Asia-Pacific countries, Bhutan has seen the greatest increase in tourist arrivals in the first quarter of this year compared to last year.
Some 5,300 tourists - a sharp 41 per cent increase from last year - have made their way to this tobacco-free, plastic bag-free mecca of happiness.
Yet, it doesn't come cheap.
Travellers whose curiosity was piqued by the hype surrounding Hong Kong stars Tony Leung and Carina Lau's wedding held in Bhutan last month have baulked when told of the cost.
A three-day tour there could buy a 12-day one in Europe, ASA's spokesperson Ms Eileen Oh said.
Bhutan packages are targeted at niche markets. So big players such as ASA do not offer them except on request.
Companies that do, such as X-trekkers, Atrium Eco Travel and Country Holidays, have reported more enquiries, but no significant increase in take-ups after The Wedding was publicised.
The number of taxes and surcharges can leave you dizzy.
In addition to the government royalty of US$200 ($275) per day, there is a 'Free Independent Traveller' surcharge of up to US$40 per day, a one-off US$20 visa fee and a US$10 Tourist Development Fund fee.
Factoring the return economy airfare from Bangkok of US$744 on Bhutan's only airline, this works out to about $2,300 for three days in Bhutan including a transfer flight to Bangkok.
And this is if you sleep on the streets and eat grass..
The hefty, rather discriminatory price tag works in line with the government motto - high quality, low impact.
In this tiny country, Gross National Product is ditched in favour of Gross National Happiness (GNH) for indexing progress. And two of the four pillars of GNH are preserving culture and tradition, and promoting sustainable development.
The things that draw city-slickers to Bhutan - the flourishing wildlife, lavish fauna and most of all, the way of life of the people whose unsullied minds the World Wide Web and television have only just infiltrated - are also the things most endangered by tourism. So the government has tasked itself to protect them at all costs.
In other words, happiness comes at a premium, and there are people who are more than willing to pay for that.
The typical profile of travellers who make the cut are usually well-heeled, moneyed types with a yen for the purity and beauty of an unspoiled land and people.
This has not always been the case in the past.
ROUGH IT OUT
Ten years ago when Country Holidays began promoting Bhutan as a travel destination, takers were strictly discerning, hardcore types willing to rough it out for an experience of the rich tapestry of history, culture and nature of Bhutan.
Ms Jess Yap, spokesperson for Country Holidays, said: 'Six years on, the first luxury hotels sprouted, infrastructure improved and a new crowd of previously interested but apprehensive customers were sold.'
Ms Yap added that her company saw a two-fold increase in Bhutan package sales at that time.
This new breed of white-collar executives go on treks accompanied by a herd of yaks hauling sleeping tents, toilet tents, kitchen and dining tents replete with lighting, tables and stools.
The less physically-inclined are happy to stay in luxury resorts such as Amankora and Uma Paro - which hosted the famous wedding - and meander among the people.
They then return home gushing about the surrealism of finding first-world luxury set against the backdrop of unbridled wilderness.
Even as development fuelled by tourist money descends upon the Happy Land, Ms Yap expressed confidence that the country will be able to strike the delicate balance between progress and preservation, at least for the next decade or so.
This article was first published in The New Paper on 8 August, 2008.