In Bhutan, hordes of young people are giving up rural life to move to cities

Life in the big city.
Life in the big city.
Image: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton
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In the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, thousands are leaving their villages to seek out a better life in towns.

With young people less interested in agriculture and eager to embrace education and employment opportunities elsewhere, rural areas are slowly emptying out. And the elderly, aged over 65, are being left behind.

As of May 2017, out of the 686,697 people who were born in the mountainous nation, nearly half (48.7%) had migrated away from their place of birth, according to the recently released 2017 Population and Housing Census of Bhutan (pdf). Bhutan’s total population at the time of the census was 735,553, which includes 53,833 non-Bhutanese people.

Rural-to-urban migration accounts for the largest share, and most migrants are aged between 25 and 29 years.

“As the classification of migrants is based on the place of birth, having lesser migrants in the older age groups (50 years and older) is an indication that most people in the past did not change their place of residence and that migration is a more recent phenomenon,” the report says. Since the previous such survey was conducted in 2005, the number of migrants in Bhutan has increased by about 80,563 people, with men accounting for 51% of the current migrant population.

Nearly 18% cited a “family move” for migrating, while it was employment for 13%, and education for 8%. Most headed for Bhutan’s western regions, which include the capital, Thimpu; the second-largest city and the country’s economic capital, Phuentsholing, and the historic town of Paro, which is popular among tourists and hosts the country’s only international airport.

With the number of international visitors on the rise, Bhutan’s tourism industry is growing steadily. In 2017, the country recorded 254,704 tourist arrivals, up nearly 22% from the year before, according to the Bhutan Tourism Monitor 2017 (pdf). Even though India still accounts for a bulk of the visitors, many more are arriving from countries such as the US, UK, Germany, China, Japan, Singapore, and Thailand, drawn by Bhutan’s cultural heritage and serene landscape.

The internal migration, meanwhile, is a matter of concern for authorities. Improving rural conditions was a “fundamental priority” in the Bhutanese government’s 2015 Gross National Happiness Survey (pdf). This survey said that rural-urban migration resulted in “social dislocation and a decrease in ‘belongingness’,” while also causing labour shortages in the hinterlands and unemployment in urban areas.