Balanced, sustainable tourism and gross national happiness in Bhutan and Flanders

On Thursday 16 January 2020, Visit Antwerp and VISITFLANDERS organised an inspirational morning at the FMCCA for professionals working in, and linked to, the tourism industry.

A fascinating presentation by Damcho Rinzin – Chief Marketing Officer, Tourism Council of Bhutan – about the success story of Bhutan in terms of sustainable tourism and gross national happiness, was followed by a panel discussion about balanced and sustainable tourism with Koen Kennis (Alderman for Tourism, City of Antwerp), Anja Stas (CMO/CCO Antwerp ZOO Society and Flanders Meeting & Convention Centre) and Pieter Loose (Hotond Sporthotel, Kluisbergen). A mix of entrepreneurs from the tourism industry, stakeholders, and policy-makers in Antwerp and Flanders engaged in a dialogue with each other, sharing their ideas on the tourism of the future.

In pursuit of the happiness of Bhutan

Flemish Minister for Tourism Zuhal Demir opened this inspiration session with a brief introduction on the goal of connecting tourists and recreational visitors with locals and local businesses in a meaningful way. Referring to the superb example of Bhutan, Minister Demir emphasised how important it is to invest in sustainable and balanced tourism.

Gross national happiness for residents and tourists

In his presentation, Damcho Rinzin discussed in detail how Bhutan copes with the influx of tourists in relation to nature and the local communities, and how they combine this with the gross national happiness of their population. This tiny Asian country has defined nine key areas for measuring the Gross National Happiness. They are Education, Living standards, Time Use, Psychological wellbeing, Health, Cultural diversity & resilience, Community vitality, Good governance and Ecological diversity & resilience. Moreover, they focus on these key areas to ensure the local population’s happiness, but also applies to their tourism policy. Bhutan has made it a point to focus on storytelling to preserve the country’s legends and folk tales and to share them with tourists as part of their cultural heritage. They also pay attention to the layout of the landscape, banning utility poles in nature areas, and to new infrastructure, ensuring the architecture blends harmoniously with the existing buildings. Bhutan also hopes to be a 100% carbon-neutral country by investing in sustainable means of transport, combating the excessive use of paper, and by committing to plant sufficient trees.

“Instead of pursuing a prosperous nation, the national goal should concern the pursuit of a happy nation.” — Damcho Rinzin

Tourist meets local

Finally, Koen Kennis, Anja Stas and Pieter Loose highlighted the importance of the connection between the tourist/recreational visitor, locals, and local business.

Koen Kennis

Koen Kennis explained how the City of Antwerp mainly focuses on the interest of added value seekers, by introducing tourists to places that are popular with locals. The idea is to create a genuine experience. “Tourists can use our Ask Antwerp app to talk to locals and ask them where they can sample the best chocolate or beer in Antwerp, for example. It’s a great way of guiding tourists to places in the city which they might never discover otherwise.”

Anja Stas

Anja Stas emphasised the importance of the integration of locals in the projects run by Antwerp’s Zoo. The locals consider the animal park, which is also part of the city’s green lung, to be like their own garden. “Green areas are so important, not just in relation to nature ecology, but also to human ecology. We humans really need greenery for our wellbeing and happiness. Which is why I see it as my duty to focus on this.”

Pieter Loose

Finally, Pieter Loose explained how he applies this vision in practice. He founded the Sporthotel Hotond, paying attention to the site’s authenticity and retaining as many elements as he could during the renovation. Moreover, he involves locals in the project by asking neighbourhood residents to share their tips about the region. “The Hotond site is more than a hotel. It also has a restored mill, a restaurant and a nice pub. In our large picnic area, which is open to everyone, the locals can easily engage with tourists and share fun tips.”

The conclusion of this inspirational morning? Just like Damcho Rinzin in Bhutan, we want, and can also strive, to increase gross national happiness in Flanders. His methods inspired us to think about how best to work towards this.

Watch Damcho Rinzin’s presentation and the panel discussion below.

More information about the speakers

Damcho Rinzin – Chief Marketing Officer, Tourism Council of Bhutan

Damcho Rinzin

Damcho Rinzin holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Management in Hospitality and Tourism from the University of New Brunswick, Canada as well as an Australian Master’s Degree in International Tourism and in Business. After graduating, he went to work as a researcher and marketer for the then Department of Tourism at the Ministry of Trade and Industry. There, he was closely involved in research into, and the development of, various community-based tourism projects in Bhutan.

Damcho Rinzin plays an important role in the marketing and promotion of Bhutan. From 2014 until 2018, he was the head of the Tourism Promotion department of Bhutan’s Tourism Council, which is responsible for the promotion and marketing of the Kingdom of Bhutan to visitors. He is especially passionate about the development and promotion of ‘Brand Bhutan’, which he thinks plays a crucial role in the promotion of a high-quality tourism policy.

As a dedicated professional, Damcho Rinzin wants to strengthen Bhutan’s tourism industry on various levels, in his own unique way.