Bhutan, most tourist guidebooks say, is a country of short distances but long journeys. It’s another way of saying that traveling around Bhutan can take a comparatively longer time than elsewhere.
The narrow roads with countless hairpin bends that snake up the hill and then wind down to the river do not allow for driving at high speeds. Some of the national highways that run west to east, south and central, were built more than 4 decades ago when Bhutan was cautiously opening up to modern development.
These newly built highways forever changed the way Bhutanese moved around, to say the least, like the way the internet is changing the way we communicate and source information. Getting to the southern borders on foot from the capital was reduced to a day in the back of a truck.
A lot has changed in the past 4 decades, but the priority and the challenge to build more roads and increase connectivity within the nation has not changed. At the start of modern development the first priority was roads. Today as the economy continues to modernize and expand, it is still roads, given our landlocked geographical position and the absence of domestic water or air transport.
In recent years, there have been a number of initiatives to shorten and broaden national highways. While motorists just live the idea of driving on a broad smooth road and arriving at a destination much faster, shorter broader national highways have much bigger implications on the overall economy. For example, the new Damchu – Chukha alignment that will shorten the Thimphu – Phuentsholing by about 20 km is expected to save about 2.5 million liters of fuel in a year. Fuel is the number one item on Bhutan’s import bill.
The proposal of drilling tunnels through mountains to shorten travel time and distance has thrilled people to no end and opened up the possibility of working in one city and living in another. Here the only issue is the immense cost involved, yet the consensus is that it might be worth the cost. At the other end of the spectrum is the rural voter base crying out for road access, so that they can also be part of mainstream development and enjoy the fruits of Bhutan’s growing economic prosperity.
Today, the country is poised to start domestic air travel mainly for the tourism industry and for medical and emergency response. Still, for the majority on the ground the greatest bottleneck to development is good road communication.