British Pioneers of Tourism in Nepal

From Jim Edwards to Jimmy Roberts, Nepal-UK share more than 100 years of friendship

AV JIm Edwards greets King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya at Tiger Tops Lodge in May 1988.

December 2023 marked two moments of significance for Nepal: tourist numbers passed the one million mark for the first time since 2019 and we celebrated the centenary of the Britain-Nepal Treaty of Friendship. That treaty helped establish what Nepal and the UK knew already: that Nepal was a proud independent nation.

One hundred years on from 1923, we’re glad of the history the UK and Nepal share and where we are going together. Tourism and its contribution to the economy, jobs and conservation is part of that friendship and we have to thank many Nepali and British pioneers who played and continue to play a part.

Tourism wasn’t always part of the UK-Nepal Friendship though. When that treaty was inked in 1923, Nepal was relatively unknown to tourists. Early British expeditions to climb Everest, including the famous one in 1924, had to approach the mountain from the north.

Nepal was a 'forbidden country' for westerners until the early 1950s. The first steps of the successful expedition 70 years ago approached the mountain by unfamiliar paths, ‘starting’ in the garden of the British Embassy. Fast-forward to 2023 and nearly 53,000 Brits have visited Nepal since. Tourists can reach Base Camp in days instead of weeks.

After World War II and the opening up of Nepal to foreigners, British travellers among others came to Nepal to enjoy trekking, mountaineering, and the growing hippie culture in Kathmandu. Throughout the 1960s 'Freak Street' in Kathmandu continued to draw in the English as the terminus of the Hippie Trail that started on the other side of the world in London.

British residency
British Residency at Kathmandy in 1912.

As pioneers in the mountaineering field, the British were always drawn to the Himalaya, making Nepal a destination at the top of many British travel lists, something that continues today. Nepal became the first country to introduce trekking and white river-rafting, and was the first Asian country to have jungle lodges.

It was not long before they fell in love with the country, with its beauty and people. Some were entrepreneurs, others simply found themselves in the right place at the right time. Many have left a mark on what is today a growing industry, one vital to Nepal’s economy, and one that continues to grow as generations of Brits and Nepalis build new opportunities together. Some of those pioneers are featured here:

Jim Edwards, Prince Philip, Prince Gyanendra
Then-prince Gyanendra, AV Jim Edwards and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh in February 1986 in Chiwan.

AV Jim Edwards found himself at a diplomatic party in New Delhi where an introduction to Prince Basundhara led to a year exploring the jungles of the Tarai. Captivated, Jim returned in 1964 and subsequently established Nepal’s first wildlife tourism company, Nepal Wildlife Adventure, offering jungle treks, fishing and hunting expeditions. 

Taking over Tiger Tops in 1972, Jim played his part in Nepal’s early moves towards wildlife conservation, contributing to the efforts to convert the former Royal hunting reserve into Chitwan National Park. Today Chitwan is a global icon of nature conservation that Nepal is rightly proud of. Alongside Jimmy Roberts, Charles 'Chuck' McDougal, John R Edwards, John Blashford-Snell, Lisa Choegyal, Robin Marston, Marcus Cotton and Steve Webster, Jim contributed much to Nepali tourism.

JOM Roberts
Col JOM Roberts, Lisa Choegyal and AV Jim Edwards with Queen Elizabeth at the British Embassy Kathmandu in 1986.

Col JOM Roberts arrived in Nepal in 1958 as Defence Attaché at the British Embassy. By 1964 he had registered Nepal’s first trekking agency, Mountain Travel. Known as the father of trekking, Roberts was another pioneering figure in the early days of mountaineering, trekking and Nepali tourism. 

Credited with opening up some of Nepal’s extensive network of historic and ancient trading trails and high mountain villages, he apparently told Princess Anne that his bathroom in Pokhara had “the best view in the world”. 

Prince Charles
Pertemba Sherpa, Prince Charles, and Prince Dhirendra set off on the Royal Trek near Pokhara.

Jimmy’s talents led him and colleague Robin Marston to craft 'The Royal Trek' for the then Prince Charles. What started as a curated experience for the now King is still in the itinerary of many travel agents.

Read Also: No lovlier spot than Kakani, Lisa Choegyal

Lisa Choegyal, a self-declared 'restless traveller' arrived here in 1974, after a year in South East Asia, to trek in Jomsom. A chance meeting in Freak Street led her to Tiger Tops in Chitwan: she did not want to leave and would thus convince Jim Edwards to employ her in his business model combining adventure tourism with conservation. 

Looking back, Lisa feels proud of having helped put Nepal on the map and is known for promoting Nepal as a premier destination for responsible, sustainable and eco-friendly tourism, as well as for her contributions to this paper.

Prince Charles
King Charles III in 1980 setting off on the Royal Trek with Prince Dhirendra (left) and Prabal SJB Rana.

Born during the Blitz in London, Anthony L Jones of Encounter Overland was one of the first to operate overland tourism along the hippie trail and pioneered rural heritage tourism. 

His company, Himalayan Encounters, has prioritised the link between business and protecting rural heritage, leading to the restoration of buildings such as The Old Inn in Bandipur and the Famous Farm in Nuwakot. Tony has helped showcase the skill of local artisans, salvaging and incorporating many pieces in his buildings to give them a new life. 

Jim Edwards
Jim Edwards and Chuck McDougal when they first took over Tiger Tops in 1972.

These are just a few of the many Brits who have helped build tourism here. As we celebrate 100 Years of UK-Nepal friendship, we’re proud of the partnership, and the role played by many extraordinary Britishers in developing tourism and conservation in Nepal.

Read Also: Champions of Nepal's conservation movement, Lisa Choegyal

Nepal has dubbed 2023-32 'Visit Nepal Decade' and as part of this we will look to the next generation of young Nepalis and Brits, the future pioneers in this important industry. 

jimmy roberts
Col Jimmy Roberts, the pioneer of trekking, in his beloved Pokhara.

We will also continue to celebrate the part tourism plays; providing sustainable livelihoods, enabling people to maintain and protect the resources upon which their businesses depend, and the huge potential of high-value tourism over high-volume tourism. 

This piece is a collaboration between the Britain Nepal Society (UK) and British Embassy – based on a wider piece of research conducted on the history of British contributions to Nepali tourism. 

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