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Mainstreaming biodiversity into the tourism sector

By Chimi Wangmo

The Royal Government of Bhutan and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) signed a USD 4.854 million project funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF).  The initiative, a child project of the Global Wildlife Program (GWP) will be implemented by Tourism Council as part of Tourism Flagship Programme in the 12th Five-year Plan.

The project seeks to mainstream biodiversity conservation into tourism development. It is a long-term strategy to mitigate threats to biodiversity, while also generating sustainable conservation financing and livelihoods for people within and outside protected areas, facilitating human-wildlife coexistence, and mitigating negative impacts of growing tourism on Bhutanโ€™s socio-cultural heritage. The project aims to establish Bhutan as a model ecotourism destination.

While Bhutan has managed the COVID-19 pandemic well, averting a severe public health crisis, the country faces serious shocks in key economic sectors such as tourism. For a country which relies heavily on tourism for its revenue, the economic crisis has been far more severe than the public health crisis.

Tourism contributes the highest to the hard currency reserve and provides the most employment opportunities, especially to a growing number of unemployed Bhutanese youth. Bhutanese dependent on tourism faced loss of livelihoods. The projectโ€™s design considers opportunities for contributing to green recovery from the impacts of the pandemic, including boosting of domestic tourism, employment opportunities, and increasing community resilience and connection to nature.

The project will be implemented over a five-year period covering two protected areas (PAs) of Bumdeling Wildlife Sanctuary (BWS) and Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary (SWS) in eastern Bhutan, and five districts of Lhuentse, Mongar, Trashigang, Trashi Yangtse and Zhemgang.

These areas represent the eastern and south-central parts of Bhutan. Given the astounding biodiversity and prevalence of high Human-Wildlife Conflict incidences in these areas, ecotourism will be used as a tool for long-term conservation gains through the management of co-benefits and trade-offs.

The project will also address barriers to establishing ecotourism through enabling national policy environment and institutional coordination, sustainable financing, innovation, and diversification of ecotourism products. It will also integrate ecotourism value chains and best practices into local community engagement, knowledge and capacity.

At the signing, Gross National Happiness Commission Secretary, Thinley Namgyel, thanked UNDP and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) for the support and cooperation in making the project, a reality.

โ€œTourism is second to hydropower in terms of revenue generation, and it contributes significantly to employment creation,โ€ he said, adding that the pandemic displaced about 50,000 Bhutanese in the job market.

The project, he said, will help mainstream tourism in economic development and the 21st Century Economic Roadmap has set high targets for the sector.

Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) Director General Dorji Dhradhul said the Council, which is the implementing agency for the project, is confident that the project will be successfully executed, with targets and goals achieved in scheduled time.

He also said that the project came at the right time as TCB prepares for post-pandemic tourism. โ€œWe are promoting Bhutan as a wellness and wellbeing destination and the eco-tourism project will blend well with it.โ€

UNDP Resident Representative Azusa Kubota, who attended the signing virtually from Japan said that despite the pandemic and the climate crisis, further corroborated by the UNโ€™s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that there will be unavoidable rise in global temperature by 1.5 degree Celsius by 2030, Bhutan remained farsighted, relevant and courageous in its pursuits that are green and sustainable.

She thanked the Royal Government, GNHC, TCB and other agencies involved in the realisation of this historic project.

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