For the first time, Bhutan is facing China in a football World Cup qualifier. While few expect the Little Dragon to win the June match, the atmosphere in Thimphu's stadium moments before kick-off is electric. More than 10,000 Bhutanese - fathers with toddlers on their shoulders, monks wrapped in swirling burgundy robes, young couples with faces daubed in the team's orange and yellow - thump drums, blow horns and wave flags and streamers to the chant of "Bhutan! Bhutan!" They easily drown out the 100 or so Chinese fans who have found their way to this tiny Himalayan kingdom to support their national team.

Surprisingly, scores of Bhutanese fans are also waving red Chinese flags.

"There are so few Chinese here and so many of us," one Bhutanese youth says, explaining that it is "kind to help them out". Local tour guides are, in fact, distributing the flags to the Bhutanese fans, a reflection of the efforts the landlocked country's agencies are making to entice Chinese tourists.

They needn't worry. Increasingly affluent and mobile, the Chinese middle class are signing up to Bhutanese package tours in their thousands; China is fast becoming Bhutan's biggest source of tourists (that title went to Thailand last year). But while local tour companies experiment with ways to cultivate this market, behind the scenes, the country is mindful of how that might effect its special relationship with New Delhi.

THE CHINESE COME HEREFOR MANY OF the same reasons that have inspired travellers since Bhutan opened to tourists, in 1974. They arrive in search of unpolluted nature, exotic culture, Buddhist heritage, magnificent dzongs (fortresses) - and happiness.

In 1972, Bhutan's fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, came up with the concept of "gross national happiness", an economic model that measures well being.

A few days before the Bhutan-China clash, Ren Bin, slick with sweat, is struggling up a steep path to the Tiger's Nest, a cliff-top monastery complex and a staple of tourist itineraries. The 25-year-old surveyor from Changsha, Hunan province, is on a five-day tour to coincide with the football match.

"I came here for the beautiful nature, the environment and to relax," he says. "Bhutanese people are happy and I'm pretty stressed at work."

With the growing popularity of Tibetan Buddhism in China, Bhutan's religious tradition is another big draw. Mei, who doesn't want to give her full name, says she's come to Bhutan four times.

"Since I'm a Buddhist it really attracts me," says the 43-year-old, from Lanzhou, Gansu province. "The main drive for me is my belief. I've met several rinpoches [Buddhist masters] and I made a three-day trek, a great experience for me, in the high mountains."

Aware of the environmental and cultural impact of mass tourism, Bhutan has long enforced a strict policy aimed at attracting "high value, low volume" tourists. It does this by requiring nationals of all countries apart from India, Bangladesh and the Maldives (who are known as "regional tourists") to join a package tour and pay a minimum royalty of between US$200 and US$250 per day, depending on the season.

According to Euromonitor, a British-based market research firm, in 2007 just 500 trips to this tiny nation were made by mainland Chinese tourists but, by last year, that number had risen more than tenfold, to 5,400.

That figure may seem small but, when compared with Bhutan's population of 760,000, and the total number of royalty-paying tourists - just shy of 58,000 last year, according to the Tourism Council of Bhutan - it begins to look significant.

In 2008, Hong Kong A-list actors Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Carina Lau Ka-ling married in Bhutan, in a Buddhist ceremony. Their fairy-tale wedding put Bhutan firmly on the map for Asian tourists, especially mainland Chinese, explains Pema Tashi, managing director of Happiness Kingdom Travels.

Back then, Bhutan did not have any professional Putonghua-speaking tour guides, so "we immediately sent three of our guides … to learn Chinese in Chengdu", says Tashi, in his Thimphu office. The walls are hung with colourful tangkas (Buddhist scroll paintings) and framed portraits of lamas while, on his desk, the Bhutanese flag - a white dragon dancing on an orange and yellow background - stands next to one bearing the red and five gold stars of China.

The first to be sent was his brother, Tashi Namgay, who spent one and a half years studying in China and is now Happiness Kingdom's deputy general manager of operations.

Namgay, sitting smartly on the office sofa, looks handsome in his gho - a traditional robe that men must wear if they enter a government office or monastery and is commonly worn by guides on the job. He is modest about his language skills but his brother will have none of it.

"He's Bhutan's No1 Chinese guide!" says Pema Tashi.

The company now has six and, according to the managing director, his is the only Bhutanese tour agency that has full-time Chinese-speaking guides. Other companies must hire one or more of a growing number of freelancers who have studied Putonghua.

Happiness Kingdom has made an effort in other ways, too. It has a Chinese name - a direct translation. Last year, the company made a parody of Xiao Pingguo, a cheesy hit by Chinese duo the Chopstick Brothers. In Happiness Kingdom's version, which was posted on Chinese video-sharing sites and promoted via WeChat, Bhutanese men and women dressed in gho and kira (a traditional woven sarong worn by women) dance in front of the country's top tourist sites.

The company's efforts have paid off. Last year, more than half of all mainland arrivals came in on a Happiness Kingdom tour. However, competition is growing.

"Until 2012, we were the only player in the Chinese market," says Pema Tashi. "Now there are more and more."

One of the emerging contenders is Gomo Adventures. As tour guides, founder Ugyen Wangchuk hires Bhutanese monks who live in Taiwan, and can therefore speak Putonghua, as well as local freelancers.

"We expect that in the future more tourists will come from China than any other country," says Wangchuk, a former monk himself. "China's economy is going very well."

Euromonitor predicts mainland Chinese tourist numbers will reach 6,000 this year, and will grow an annual 500 to 800 over the next four years. The earthquake in Nepal, however, may cause the real figures for this year to dip. Flying through Kathmandu is the cheapest option for mainland package-tour visitors and many prefer to combine the two destinations in one trip.

For years, Bhutan's tour companies have been bringing in well-off and well-travelled tourists from the United States and Europe. That has shaped services; menus in hotels and restaurants offer local dishes, Indian fare and Westernised food. Bhutanese cuisine is characterised by its fiery chillies and thin cheesy sauces, and is often accompanied with plump grains of nutty red rice. Guides here say Chinese tourists are not impressed.

"I tell them, 'Since you are in Bhutan I think you should experience Bhutanese food,'" Pema Tashi says. "Still they insist on Chinese food." And so, Happiness Kingdom makes sure its guides can whip up simple Chinese dishes in the hotel kitchens, offering a stopgap until local cooks can adapt.

Also, Chinese tourists are not prepared to rough it like the Europeans, says Pema Tashi. As a developing country, Bhutan's roads can be bad and breakdowns do occur. While well-seasoned travellers take this in their stride, Chinese tourists expect everything to be smooth, he explains, and that's a challenge.

Chinese travelling abroad have earned a reputation for bad behaviour but, in Bhutan, perhaps because a licensed guide must accompany all visitors, that doesn't seem to have been a problem.

"I've been taking Chinese clients since 2011 and it's been fine so far," says Namgay. "What I feel, as a pro-fessional guide, is that as soon as you receive them from the airport … you should tell them the dos and don'ts."

And the biggest issue? Smoking, which is banned in Bhutan. Namgay often has to remind Chinese tourists that they can't light up in their hotel rooms.

"I always use that Chinese phrase - what is it?" He pauses to think, then beams, " Ruxiang suisu [when in Rome] and then they understand."

Not everyone in Bhutan's travel industry is scramb-ling to get a piece of the Chinese action. Several of the bigger players remain content to concentrate on traditional markets.

General manager Eutha Karchung says that Etho Metho Tours & Treks, one of the oldest and largest agencies in the business, focuses on high-end tours - packages costing in the region of US$1,000 a day - and it cannot find guides fluent enough in Putonghua to justify charging Chinese visitors that kind of money.

"It's something for the future," she says. "Since we're the oldest, we've always stuck with the traditional markets in Bhutan, which is basically Europe, America, Australia and all the English-speaking countries."

Another hurdle is connecting with China-based agents. Norbu Bhutan Travel, which brought in the most tourists last year, accounting for 7.5 per cent of all bed nights in Bhutan, hasn't made inroads in China because finding agents to work with in the mainland has proved costly and difficult.

"We need a tourism fair in China," says Tshering Penjor, Norbu Bhutan's operations manager. His company could work through agents in Nepal and Hong Kong, he says "but they would also take their share, so it'd be harder for us to make a profit". A couple of years ago, sales and marketing staff from the company visited China to forge links - but the trip yielded little business. And so, like Etho Metho, for the time being, Norbu Bhutan is staying with the established and safer markets.

The Tourism Council of Bhutan has its own problems when it comes to the Chinese market.

"We really haven't been able to do any marketing campaigns in China, mainly because we don't have enough money," says Damcho Rinzin, the council's media spokesman. "It's the traditional markets we are targeting at the moment - the US and Europe."

He argues that while the number of Chinese tourists is growing - and growing fast - they tend to book much shorter tour packages, so it is still more profitable to target Europeans.

"The Swiss stay an average of 11 nights; this is versus the Asian and Chinese tourists, who come for four or five nights. For us it is good to target one Swiss tourist rather than two Asian tourists."

About half of the Chinese tourists who visited last year spent just four to five nights in Bhutan; fewer than 5 per cent stayed 10 days or more. In contrast, about 25 per cent of the visiting Australians, French and Germans spent more than 11 nights.

Chinese guests like "short duration and more sightseeing", agrees Namgay. "When they buy packages, they always go with more sightseeing; it doesn't matter how tough it is for them. Time is limited but they want to see more." He laughs. "Sometimes they say they want to see the whole country in three days."

Wangchuk says he's looking to attract Chinese tourists by offering them something different.

"Most travel agents have trips where you see a dzong one day, the next day a temple - and it's just dzong, dzong, dzong. But I want to make a bit of a change." He is thinking about creating packages for photographers and honeymooners, and trips on which tourists can meet figures from Bhutanese society, such as artists and politicians.

It's an approach that would win over visitors such as Jing Yi, a vivacious 30-something woman from Beijing. Last month, she was to be found posing with her Tibetan boyfriend as they took selfies in the grounds of Punakha Dzong. Punakha is Bhutan's former capital and another popular stop on the tourist circuit. She was visiting because Bhutan is an "intimate place" for lovers to go on holiday, she said, catching her boyfriend's eye.

Tourism is Bhutan's second most important industry, after hydro-electric power. Last year, gross earnings from royalty-paying tourists contributed US$73.2 million to the country's economy - Bhutan's GDP was US$1.82 billion, in total, according to the World Bank. But tourism is volatile; troubled economies in Europe and Japan have meant fewer tourists from those regions in recent years. Japanese arrivals fell 33 per cent last year, resulting in China becoming Bhutan's major Asian source market.

"They are bringing dollars here," says Tshewang Jurmi, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and a member of parliament. "It's only a good sign that more Chinese tourists are coming to Bhutan."

Clearly, though, not everyone agrees.

Thimphu, the only capital city in the world without traffic lights, has a famous traffic circle, where single police officers choreograph traffic with hypnotic waves of their white-gloved hands. Just one block south of the traffic circle, on the top floor of a tangerine-coloured building, is the Manju Shiri Institute. This tiny school teaches a handful of languages - German, Spanish, French and, since 2013, basic Putonghua - to tourist guides.

In a late afternoon class, a young Bhutanese woman in a lavender kira is speaking Putonghua to just three students, but this will be one of the school's last Chinese lessons. Officials have told the institute to stop teaching the language, explains Tendi Zangmo, the wife of the school's owner. She says no reason was given, but Bhutan's closest ally - India - has not been happy to see Thimphu and Beijing growing closer, judging by reactions in a variety of Indian media.

Dibyesh Anand, an associate professor at London's University of Westminster and an expert on China-India relations in the Himalayan region, says he doesn't think Delhi has anything to worry about.

"Bhutan is aware of the hyper-sensitivity of India when it comes to China's relations with the Himalayan countries and does not want to replicate Nepal, where China and India jostle for influence and Nepalese from different persuasions end up acting as proxies for one country or another," he explains.

Bhutan does not have diplomatic relations with Beijing, although it routinely meets with its northern neighbour to discuss border disputes - China claims about 10 per cent of Bhutanese territory. Bhutan and India have historically been very close; until 2007, Delhi more or less controlled Thimphu's foreign affairs. Although Chinese goods, such as kitchenware, plastic toys and cheap shoes are widely seen in Thimphu, India remains Bhutan's largest trading partner; last year, India was responsible for 84 per cent of Bhutan's imports and 89 per cent of its exports.

"Given Bhutan's overwhelming reliance on India, economically as well as strategically, and Bhutan's unresolved borders with China and the remembrance of how China occupied Tibet and controlled Buddhism there, it will remain pro-India but without compromising its dignity," says Anand. "Tourism is an important sector but it is not as [valuable] as aid from India. Hence, the normalisation of relations with China will be incremental."

BACK AT THE STADIUM, as rain starts to spatter the field, the match ends with the Little Dragon crushed 6-0 by the Big Dragon: a sober reminder that, when it comes to handling China, you are unlikely to be the one dictating proceedings, on or off the pitch.