13-19 May 2016 #808

Selling ourselves short

Nepal needs to raise the bar urgently for sustainable high-value tourism
Arild Molstad

Arild Molstad

Arriving in Nepal recently to disburse funds collected from enthusiastic friends in Norway, I encountered the harsh realities of a partly-ruined country with an ambivalent mixture of amazement and disappointment.

What was amazing was the irrepressible optimism and indestructible survival instincts of Nepalis rebuilding homes and homestays with their bare hands in a race against a second monsoon out in the open. They were working on their potato and rice terraces surrounded by scarred mountain slopes and dangerous rockfalls, or selling fresh produce and juice from bicycle trolleys to tourists slowly returning to Thamel.

But I was also saddened and disappointed by the slow pace of the state bureaucracy, making life in devastated towns and villages much harder than it needed to be in the year since the earthquake.

The donations were from a fund-raising campaign in Norway called ’Reis Nepal’ with its double meaning in Norwegian: ’raise Nepal’s economy’, as well as ’travel to Nepal’. The campaign motto was: ’From one mountain people to another’.

Organising the effort were people with backgrounds in international sustainable tourism and development assistance. We know well how the multipliers and ripple effects of tourism can quickly reach out into poor communities and generate a long value chain in many other sectors: transportation, agriculture, forestry, fishing, food distribution.

Nepal’s tourism, once an efficient, enlightened  model for the entire world via its pioneering sustainable mountain trekking and lowland safaris, has now been aptly described as ‘a race to the bottom’.

For decades, Nepal’s tourism presented a healthy, sustainable blend of high-end, medium-priced and budget backpacker menus to global travellers. Now, much of its core, the trekking industry, runs the risk of becoming a ‘failed sector’ if measured in terms of the traditional sustainable criteria. The absence of repeat tourists is only part of the problem.

It doesn’t help that Nepal’s tourism resources are pegged to visitor count -- with fewer arrivals leading to lower promotion funding from the government.

On the first day of my trek north of Pokhara, when  presented with a bill for a night in a perfectly comfortable, clean, friendly homestay with solar heated showers and a knockout view of the Annapurna range, the problem stared me in the face: the bill amuounted  to Rs 500 for my trekking guide and myself.  Five dollars. It simply does not add up.

While there have been great strides in conservation like the Annapurna Conservation Area, the crux of the matter is that tens of thousands of hard-working Nepalis receive only a pittance of the true value they provide affluent visitors. This is not sustainable. Tourism in Nepal, like some other countries, suffers from a dramatically undervalued nature capital. Adding to Nepal’s woes is that its own government underappreciates the importance of tourism.

Small grants from a mountainous country on the other side of the planet is a drop in the bucket for those dependent on tourism in the earthquake hit areas of Rolwaling, Gorkha, Manaslu. All along the trails, in tea houses and homestays villagers look in vain for the assistance they have been promised to rebuild their trails and housing.

Now is the time to revitalise and upgrade Nepal’s tourism product in a sustainable way. Wouter Schalken, a tourism expert at the Samarth Nepal Market Development Programme believes it is necessary to be less dependent on Kathmandu-based trekking operators and actively promote a greater variety of actual destination areas like sections of the Great Himalaya Trail, national parks, and conservation areas.

He supports a ‘hub-spoke system’ that encourages shorter treks, but longer stays in the country, and remind international travellers of the presence of shelters constructed according to earthquake-resistant methods and helipads within a half-hour walk. Schalken is concerned about the downsides of Nepal to acquiring an  image of ‘being a cheap backpacking destination … a low-value model that keeps on reducing itself in value’. Samarth hopes to facilitate ‘investment in entrepreneurial skills and development towards a more sustainable model that includes certification and higher rates’.

As somebody who  travelled in Nepal when the country’s high income/low-impact tourism in the seventies and eighties brought huge admiration and the first waves of affluent visitors to Nepal’s incredible diveristy of attractions, I share Schalken’s sentiments. The bar needs to be raised higher, and urgently.

There is no reason why Nepal cannot once again become a world leader in sustainable tourism. Let’s not waste this chance.

Arild Molstad is a writer, photographer, and consultant on sustainable tourism to governments and institutions such as National Geographic and Unesco..

Read also:

Fixing tourism, Karma Gurung

Peak Tourism, Kanak Mani Dixit

Trekking in Nepal turns 50, Robin Marston

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