January 5th, 2012
11:20 AM GMT
Thimphu, Bhutan (CNN) – Bhutan, the last of the Himalayan kingdoms, has largely been closed to foreigners and foreign business. But while its government measures progress by "gross national happiness," it is now looking to develop economically, and is looking to its neighbours for help.
Bhutan’s culture has remained intact for centuries and its landscape, as well as the government's mandate to keep its people happy, has a mystical quality. But it is also a developing nation struggling to find prosperity for its people.
Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigme Y Thinley told CNN’s Sara Sidner: "The truth is, Bhutan is a poor developing country that is still significantly dependent on the support and the goodwill of the international community. We are in other words an aid-dependent country."
For centuries, Bhutan cut itself off from the outside world. There were no roads until the 1960s, no foreign tourists allowed until the 70s and no television until 1999. But there is a significant shift going on here in the 21st century.
Bhutan is now opening up to business beyond its borders. But the leadership refuses to do business at the expense of its unique environment and demands that businesses inside and outside the country are in line with its unique policy of “gross national happiness.”
American entrepreneur Daniel Spitzer is a pioneer in Bhutan. He is the first to gain permission to run a 100% foreign-owned business in the country. Spitzer and his team worked for six years to finally land what they think will be a lucrative business - growing and exporting hazelnuts.
"We grow the trees and process the nuts here and then we export the nuts," he said. "The two primary markets are Europe, which is the traditional buyer of hazelnuts, and increasingly in Asia China and Japan buy lots of hazelnuts. It's a snack food which is highly valued."
Spitzer and his team are training farmers in isolated villages in eastern Bhutan to cultivate farmland that was sitting idle and unfit for other crops.
Many of the farmers taking on the project had never heard of the hazelnut - there isn't even a name for the nut in Bhutan. But the chance to make a profit instead of living hand to mouth has attracted many farmers, such as Karma Tenzin.
"I was worried because this is a new crop that they are introducing, a new crop that I am going to grow, but based on their technical plantation and their advice I am pretty sure that this crop will be helpful to us," said Tenzin.
Because the hazelnut trees can grow on steep ridges their roots can prevent landslides. The project has become so popular the government says it will eventually employ about 15% of the impoverished population.
"This would benefit about 10,000 households, mainly in the eastern part of this country, and together they should be able to produce something like 3% of the world's hazelnut demand," said Thinley.
Currently, more than 60% of Bhutan’s GDP comes from selling electricity to India. There are no traditional power plants though - the electricity is generated by eco-friendly hydropower plants.
Government leaders say other major opportunities for foreign investment are in areas such education and tourism; three international luxury hotel chains have been operating for some time now.
In Bhutan doing business is not easy but those who do say the rewards and fascinating nature of the country will soon find their way into the hearts and minds of entrepreneurs looking for a unique challenge.
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