Where in the (business) world is Bhutan?

Lisa Napoli May 18, 2007
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Where in the (business) world is Bhutan?

Lisa Napoli May 18, 2007
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KAI RYSSDAL: The kingdom of Bhutan sits high in the Himalayan mountains. It’s small, just 700,000 people or so. And historically withdrawn. It only allowed television and the Internet in eight years ago. The government charges a tourist tax to make sure there aren’t too many visitors — $200 a day, American money.

But you can’t say businessmen there don’t dream big. A couple of weeks ago Bhutan sent its first trade delegation to the world’s biggest consumer market. Marketplace’s Lisa Napoli has the story.


LISA NAPOLI: This winter I volunteered at a new radio station in Bhutan. When I returned to the United States, I wrote a story for one of the papers back in Bhutan on my impressions of the media landscape there.

A consultant here in Southern California read the story online and sleuthed me out to tell me about the first-ever trade mission from Bhutan that was coming to L.A.

Suddenly, I found myself dancing with a bunch of Bhutanese businesspeople at a community center at a dinner in their honor.

Despite the traditional dancing and cuisine, the hopes were distinctly modern:

DECHEN PENJORE: Everyone comes here with a big dream, and I’ve come here with a big dream that somewhere we would strike it lucky. Where we would reach out to the people and let us know what we are about.

That’s Dechen Penjore. She owns a handicrafts store in Bhutan’s capital city of Thimpu. And like her counterparts on the trade mission, this would-be capitalist is guided by a devout Buddhist perspective.

DECHEN: Bhutan follows a middle-path approach to development, which is the same . . . in line with Buddha’s teachings — not too much modernization, not too less development, but in the middle.

That philosophy of moderation makes it hard to compete on the global stage. With fewer than 700,000 people and a rocky land mass the size of Switzerland, there’s no way Bhutan can keep up with neighboring China or India.

Still, the people of Bhutan are feeling the need to find new markets for their textiles, herbs, incense and tea.

SONAM P. WANGDI: For many years, more than 90 percent of our trade was with India.

That’s Sonam P. Wangdi. He’s Bhutan’s director of trade. He says Bhutan imports twice what it exports.

WANGDI: We have a problem, and we need to resolve that. So we are interested in exploring all markets so that we have a larger portfolio of products going to more countries so you’re more diversified, protected from risk in any one particular market.

This is a critical time for Bhutan. After 100 yeas of monarchy, the country’s preparing for its first democratic elections next year. And it’s flirting with joining the World Trade Organization.

What most everyone on the mission learned is that their first order of business is explaining where they are from.

Kuenzang Dorji Thinley sells Bhutanese arts and crafts and he felt resistance from buyers.

KUENZANG DORJI THINLEY: First we need to advertise our country first because when we bring the product people don’t know about Bhutan. So that’s why it’s having a little difficult time there.

But even the group’s organizers didn’t expect to sell much on this trip.

Consultant Grant Vinning has been prepping the delegation on how to do business in America. It’s not quite the same back in Bhutan.

GRANT VINNING: If everybody here has developed brochures, learned how to do their pitches, and we don’t sell a damned thing, the point is they themselves have changed. They’re learning to do things far more professionally. So if you look at the changing-of-the-culture objective then, yes, the project’s been a success.

The changing of the culture is something the Bhutanese fear even as they cautiously begin to step out. That’s why they’re moving slowly into this world of commerce.

In Los Angeles, I’m Lisa Napoli for Marketplace.

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