Government is GodNepal’s tourism slogan ‘Guest Is God’ is turning into a farce
Smack at the start of the tourist season, the government announced with just two week's notice that effective 1 April all trekkers will need to hire licensed guides. It was not an April Fool’s joke.
Talk about bad timing. Even if a ridiculous and unenforceable decision like this was necessary, it should have been made at least one season in advance.
Another such ad hoc announcement was made last week by Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality to ban all helicopter cargo flights to Everest Base Camp. The restrictions went into force just as expeditions started arriving in Lukla. Now, there are not enough porters, yak and zopkyo trains for the five-day ferry to base camp.
Some expeditions have already switched from climbing Lhotse to other Himalayan peaks, Icefall Doctors are packed ten to a tent because their gear has not arrived.
The ostensible reason was to protect the environment and provide jobs. But herding has been in steady decline in the Khumbu, leading to a lack of yaks. And many young males from Khotang and Okhaldhunga who used to do portering have migrated to cities or to the Gulf.
No doubt, helicopter traffic over Sagarmatha National Park needs to be regulated. At peak tourist season, the constant sound of choppers flying up and down from Base Camp is a disturbance. Some rescue helicopter operators have been implicated in insurance fraud.
The trekking guide rule was made by Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) and the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Civil Aviation Sudan Kirati. It appears to be politically-motivated to appease unions and trekking agencies. If safety was such a concern, how about first making domestic aviation safer? And how come Nepali trekkers do not have to take guides if it is so unsafe?
Foreign hikers need a Trekking Information Management System (TIMS) card before hitting 14 trails, and it is not available without booking a licensed guide.
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The Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal which has long lobbied for a ‘one trekker one guide’ rule is in on the deal because it will be managing the card and guides. The TIMS card was also devised to keep track of trekkers and provide emergency assistance, and was already being criticised as being redundant.
Adding the guide provision further bureaucratises trekking, adding to hassles visitors already face and increasing chances of extortion and bribery along the trails.
Trekking and mountaineering are about the freedom of the wilderness. Adding more layers of whimsical rules defeats the whole purpose. There are other ways of increasing employment and earnings from tourism by upgrading facilities and convenience, for which many visitors would gladly pay more.
We should not be milking tourists every step of the way with National Park Fees, Municipality Fees, Trekking Permit Fees, TIMS Card fees, guide fees, or charging three times more than locals for flights.
Trekkers found without a TIMS card or a guide will henceforth be fined Rs12,000, and the operators fined Rs10,000. The apprehending officer will get a 20% cut.
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Most trekkers to Nepal come in groups, and already hire guides and porters. Only a quarter of the 100,000 tourists who come to hike in Nepal every year are ‘Free Independent Travellers’, which means they plan their own trips without assistance from travel or trekking agencies.
Many of these visitors share photos and videos of their travels on social media and are Nepal’s most effective influencers. The TIMS and guide rules have been greeted with ridicule and outrage on social media. Potential tourists have said they are going elsewhere.
This is damaging publicity for Nepal as a destination at a time when the industry is struggling after the pandemic and negative publicity from air safety concerns.
Free and independent travellers tend to spend most of their money in rural areas where tourism income matters the most. Most foreign trekking groups, on the other hand, pay holiday wholesalers in Europe or elsewhere who then hire Kathmandu-based agencies, and very little of that trickles down to where trekking income makes the most difference.
The mandatory trekking guide scheme will suffer the same fate as mountaineering liaison officers, most of whom are hardly ever at base camp and just go along for the ride.