January 5th, 2012
11:20 AM GMT
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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.



soundoff (24 Responses)
  1. Beefburger

    And, of course, we are going to come along and fug it up for them.

    The Bhutanese are much more likely to understand the word "hazelnut" than western businessmen ever have a chance of understanding the word "happiness".

    January 5, 2012 at 11:51 am |
  2. Ramesh

    The whole idea of Gross National Happiness in Bhutan is a sham. You kick half of your population out of the country and talk about Gross National Happiness and economic development, very convenient, Indeed!

    January 5, 2012 at 12:20 pm |
  3. Zeena Gasim

    Those people who abuse the nature should not be given a chance to invest in Bhutan. Slowly Bhutanese lifestyle will be invaded by western ideology creating havoc. Government should observe and control them properly before the cancer spreads.

    January 5, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
  4. Rich Madison

    Ramesh, you are right. Every time I hear about Bhutan's "gross national happiness" I want to scream. Hundreds of thousands of people living in refugee camps for decades so that the "ethnically pure" can be happy on their own terms. CNN please stop promoting this country without the balance of reporting their terrible ethnic cleansing over the past 2 decades!

    January 5, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
  5. Choco monster

    Beefburger, spoken like a true CCP operative.

    January 6, 2012 at 12:53 am |
  6. Choco monster

    I bet China can sell them some pain and suffering. But not much else.

    January 6, 2012 at 9:34 am |
  7. samy

    The crimes did by Bhutanese are terrible. There are more then 200,000 Bhutnese refugese currently in Nepal. They should report this story. Its same ob Bhutan and its soo called king. They have been living in Nepal since last 22 years. They cannot go back to their county. Lot of Bhutnese refugese were killed, turtured. Same on Bhutan..

    January 7, 2012 at 6:54 am |
  8. wasso

    So being nuts is being happy..? I guess that makes sense.

    January 7, 2012 at 7:24 am |
  9. Laxman

    USA and CNN always think them as democratic and fight for human right but thts no true.They only see the human right when they can see the profit.for example-syriya,egypt,libya ,china,north kore ...But they always closed their eyes on Bhutan .Bhutan government had kick out more than 100 thousand people out of country in a name of ethnic cleansing.Is that falls on human right and gross national happiness.Those 100 thousand forgotten refugee are never news for CNN.Shame......

    January 7, 2012 at 9:07 am |
  10. Vijai Walter

    I have spend few years in Bhutan ie 1977 to 1980. It is a beautiful country.I still remember Doma ,___Churpy made of Yak milk, all residents of the country are care free relaxed and nice I have still some friends in Thimpu & Paro. I think now Bhutan should open up a bit to outside world, India is helping Bhutan in a very Big way installing Hydroelectric projects ect. also education and traning. I hope Bhutan will be a happy country always. "hazelnut" Is good Idea they alrady have apple orchards .

    January 8, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  11. Sangye Wangdi

    The negative comments about Bhutan appears from people who ran away from Bhutan because they were criminals and some of them who were mostly stateless languishing in Indian bordering Nepal wanted to become Bhutanese to reap Bhutanese economic progress. These groups of people will never find happiness in their life as they live in a confusing state of mind.

    Through application of your knowledge and wisdom, u r advised to make an attempt in transforming negatives in to positives. These can only happen when u start analyzing yourselves rather than blaming others. Basically it is a ripening effects of your own karmic results and u r responsible for all the negative causes of suffering. Please do not waste your human life and try to make best out of it wherever u r.

    January 22, 2012 at 6:29 am |
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    The crimes did by Bhutanese are terrible. There are more then 200,000 Bhutnese refugese currently in Nepal. They should report this story. Its same ob Bhutan and its soo called king. They have been living in Nepal since last 22 years. They cannot go back to their county. Lot of Bhutnese refugese were killed, turtured. Same on Bhutan..

    April 3, 2012 at 12:23 am |
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