27 May 2024 World leisure: news, training & property
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2024 issue 1

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Leisure Management - King of Bhutan


King of Bhutan

Bhutan’s King Jigme Khesar is planning a ‘mindfulness city’ underpinned by the country’s deep-rooted spirituality and Gross National Happiness index. Spa Business finds out more

The monarch says the project will be his most significant undertaking photo: paula Bronstein/Getty Images
The city will be nearly the size of Hong Kong and has been planned by Bjarke Ingels photo: Bjarke Ingels Group
A number of ‘inhabitable bridges’ include features such as a Vajrayana spiritual centre (pictured) and a healthcare facility photo: Bjarke Ingels Group
The end goal is to create employment opportunities for locals photo: Bjarke Ingels Group
Gelephu’s 35 rivers naturally create ribbon-like neighbourhoods photo: Bjarke Ingels Group
A temple will be built into a hydroelectric dam photo: Bjarke Ingels Group
Building designs are based on the domains of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index photo: Bjarke Ingels Group

Taking to the stage for Bhutan’s 116th National Day in December, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck delivered one of the most important speeches of his life. The revered monarch revealed his ambition to safeguard the future of the nation by creating an economic hub close to the size of Hong Kong in Gelephu – a small town in the south that borders India.

Its key selling point? “It will be a ‘mindfulness city’, encompassing conscious and sustainable businesses, inspired by Buddhist spiritual heritage and distinguished by the uniqueness of the Bhutanese identity,” said the king, referring to the country’s culture of respect and compassion for others and nature.

It will also be anchored by the values of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) index – a measure based on the wellness of people that guides the government of Bhutan, alongside Gross Domestic Product (see p34).

He declared: “I became king at 26 and now I’m 43 years old. I’ll do everything in my power to realise this [mindfulness city] vision.”

All things Bhutanese
The monarch intends to transform Gelephu, which has a population of less than 10,000, into a central point for business, finance, communication and transportation covering 1,000sq km – an area just under the size of Hong Kong.

It will operate as a special administrative region, he said, giving it legal independence and autonomy to formulate laws, policies and incentives to provide a conducive business environment and attract foreign investment. This is not unique to other economic hubs worldwide, admits the king, but he’s confident that the mindfulness approach will be the lynchpin to success.

“We build on strong foundations,” he said. “Bhutan is globally renowned for its GNH and strong spiritual heritage ... admired for safeguarding our culture and traditions.” This has led to a high level of credibility, he explained, without which “we would have never been able to embark on such an endeavour”.

Businesses will be screened to ensure they’re sensitive to Bhutan’s deeply ingrained wellness ethos – most likely favouring eco-friendly enterprises and prohibiting those involved with weapons manufacturing.

Traditional wellness practices
John Reed, the wellness development advisor on the project, revealed to Spa Business that while it’s still very early days we can expect the mindfulness city to feature healing centres and world-class spas drawing on Bhutanese wellness practices. These include meditation, hot stone baths incorporating ‘menchu’ (medicinal spring water) and ‘sowa rigpa’, traditional Tibetan medicine based on herbs and minerals and modalities such as acupuncture and moxibustion.

The hospitality consultant, previously COO of China’s Octave wellness community and at Aman for 25 years before that, says: “Incorporating the spirituality of Bhutan is critical as we develop the wellbeing aspects for residents and guests – accommodation built from natural and renewable materials, indoor and outdoor areas for movement and meditation and green spaces for relaxation bathing and wildlife exploration.”

Master plan by Bjarke Ingels
To appeal to Bhutan’s younger generations, the king has enlisted star architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) to design the master plan alongside Arup and Singaporean planning city consultancy Cistri. BIG, known for its ‘hedonistic sustainability’ approach, has imagined 11 neighbourhoods that each boast a Bhutanese public focal point – from a Vajrayana spiritual centre which will allow glimpses into monks’ daily practices and a healthcare facility which bridges the gap between Eastern and Western medicine to a visitor attraction educating people about local culture. A new international airport, railway connections and a hydroelectric dam are also part of the bigger picture.

BIG’s founder and creative director, Bjarke Ingels, says: “The Gelephu master plan gives form to His Majesty’s vision to create a city that becomes a cradle for growth and innovation while remaining founded on Bhutanese nature and culture.”

Natural and spiritual design
Bhutan, the world’s first carbon-neutral country, is nestled between mountains, forests and rivers. With 70 per cent of the country covered in woodland, it’s been labelled as one of the last biodiversity hotspots in the world and BIG’s master plan aims to amplify this.

The mindfulness city design highlights a tapestry of interconnected neighbourhoods and ecosystems naturally shaped by the flow of Gelephu’s 35 rivers and existing infrastructure. This results in ribbon-like neighbourhoods cascading down from the hills to the valley which are tied together by three main ‘inhabitable bridges’.

Ingles says: “We imagine the mindfulness city as a place that could be nowhere else. Where nature is enhanced, agriculture is integrated and tradition is living and breathing, not only preserved but also evolved.”

BIG has developed a language for local building typologies based on the nine GNH domains. These are repeated symmetrically around the central public spaces. Overall, there’s a notable gradual transition in density – from small buildings dispersed in the landscape in the north to larger footprints within an urban environment in the south. This, says BIG, is in keeping with the design principles of a mandala – a geometric pattern used in Buddhism.

Inflexion point
The rationale behind the mindfulness city is to kick-start Bhutan’s economy following years of voluntary isolation – the country has staunchly protected its culture for years by closing off its borders, but now recognises that things need to change.

“South Asia is experiencing an unprecedented economic transformation,” said the king, highlighting his vision to create a “vibrant economic corridor” linking Gelephu to north-east India and, beyond that, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore. He said: “This is a period of growth and a period of immense opportunities … We [Bhutan] are in a unique position to reap great benefits if we seize the opportunity, make good plans and work together diligently.”

The goal is to create employment opportunities for locals, thousands of whom are being driven abroad, to places such as Australia, Singapore and Thailand, for work. “Our challenge is that we have barely 700,000 people in our country. Unless we find the right solution, our population may dwindle to the point when we have more shops than customers, more restaurants than diners and more houses than tenants,” said the king, urging Bhutanese people living in other countries to come back home to be a part of the mindfulness city project.

The inflow of foreign investments will see major improvements in public infrastructure such as roads, bridges and railways, as well as the construction of offices, residences, hospitals and businesses such as hotels, shops and restaurants. It’s this growth that will generate more jobs for younger generations as well as demand for local goods and services, especially from farmers, he predicts.

“During my reign as king, and for our generation, this is one of the most significant undertakings,” he concluded. “It’s an inflexion point, a moment in history that’s very important for us.

“Gelephu will become a gateway connecting Bhutan to the world and the future. The road we have chosen is a gateway to the world – to markets, capital, new ideas, knowledge and technology towards our future – to chart our destiny.

“Our responsibility is not just for the immediate future … Let’s build a legacy that will continue to benefit Bhutan 500 years into the future.”

photo: John Reed

“Healing centres and world-class spas will draw on Bhutanese wellness practices such as hot stone baths and sowa rigpa” –  John Reed

Gross National Happiness index

King Jigme Khesar Namgyel’s father, Jigme Singye Wangchuck – the fourth ruler of Bhutan – introduced the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index 50 years ago to measure the wellbeing of its people alongside its economic output.

The GNH index is based on nine domains:

• Psychological wellbeing

• Health

• Education

• Time-use

• Living standards

• Good governance

• Community vitality

• Ecological diversity and resilience

• Cultural diversity and resilience

In 2011, The UN General Assembly passed a resolution which recognised happiness as a “fundamental human goal”. It’s been urging member nations to follow the example of Bhutan in measuring happiness and wellbeing ever since.

photo: Ehrhorn Hummerston

“We imagine the mindfulness city as a place that could be nowhere else ... Where tradition is living and breathing” –  Bjarke Ingles

Originally published in Spa Business 2024 issue 1

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