Livelihoods matter, restart trekking in Nepal
On the morning of 20 May this year, we dragged ourselves up to Gokyo Ri, the famous viewpoint in the Khumbu. Four of the world’s six highest mountains sliced the crystal-clear air in a spellbinding scene that had inspired us to visit Nepal.
The only problem was that we were alone. In normal times, a May morning with perfect weather would have meant throngs of trekkers on the trails. The solitude was lucky for us, but a telltale sign of the grave risk that Nepal’s tourism-dependent regions now face.
My girlfriend Mallika, our guide Kedar, and I were among the last trekkers in the Khumbu in Spring 2021. For 16 days, we had the trails, hotels, and even whole villages to ourselves. We spoke with many locals whose livelihoods rely on trekking, including guides, hotel owners, cooks, and shopkeepers.
They painted a complex picture of great personal resilience, seriously depleted finances, and increasing worry about the impacts of Covid-19.
The Nepal government should make clear policy decisions to support the Khumbu and other regions that focus on tourism. Policies can succeed by balancing income generation with Covid-19 risk. Speed is key: the trekking season begins in mid-September, and foreign tourists need to book their travel plans soon.
The problem is that there have been three missed seasons of trekking income, with a fourth looming. Trekking drives Nepal’s tourism economy, especially in the Khumbu. It provides two distinct seasons of cash flow annually: March-May, and September-November. The lack of substantial off-season tourism makes each season a crucial financial opportunity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has now blocked this opportunity for three straight seasons. The impacts were serious for everyone we met this year in Nepal’s tourism sector. Trekking guides normally work 10 treks per year, but many have not worked since 2019. We were Kedar’s first clients since February 2020. One French-speaking guide in Kathmandu, who usually gets reliable business from French trekkers, is now running a small grocery. Porters and lower-paid support staff were even worse off, with many leaving Kathmandu to avoid rents.
Business owners are facing the risk of massive debts. They had envisioned recouping 2020’s losses in the Spring of 2021, but had no real chance to do so. The owner of a new hotel told us he had raced to finish construction for the season, but had few guests.
Since he had to finance porters, mules and helicopters to bring the construction materials into roadless Khumbu, he was now far behind financially. In Lukla, a shopkeeper said she had moved from Kathmandu in late 2020 with her family to open her business. She had invested in having all her goods ready by March, but almost no one showed up to buy them.
Despite these challenges, we saw the deep resilience of Khumbu locals. In the high mountains, people had shifted their focus from tourists to yaks. We managed lodging in shut-down villages with people who stayed to care for their animals. In the lower valleys, age-old agricultural rhythms were kicking into gear again.
Mixed feelings about tourism during the pandemic were also evident. While we were vaccinated and wore masks around others, most people were wary of foreigners spreading Cvodi-19. The owner of our Namche hotel even gave us a bag of masks to hand out along the trail.
It was clear overall that a lack of trekkers next season would be a big problem, further pushing an already stressed economy.
A proposed solution can be to open trekking in September, but require vaccine proof. The Nepal government can support the mountain tourist regions, while also protecting their health and honouring their fortitude by implementing a balanced policy that allows trekking for fully vaccinated tourists.
September is the right time to open up. The low trekking season during the monsoon was a natural buffer for the Covid-19 situation to improve both in Nepal and abroad. Now, with the lockdown having stabilised the case load somewhat, the improving conditions can also enable economic recovery.
In the meantime, potential trekkers have been getting vaccinated. In 2019 trekkers mainly came to Nepal from the UK, USA, China, Australia, Germany, France, India, and several other European countries. Global Covid-19 vaccination data shows that European countries and the United States have vaccinated a large proportion of their populations. India and Australia lag behind, but have active vaccination drives.
Clear communication from the government would be essential for this to work. Foreigners need to know the exact rules about vaccine proof, tests and quarantines before they decide to travel, and locals need to know that trekkers will not be allowed to come in and spread disease.
Implementing vaccine proof travel may be easier than we might think. Vaccine passports may be difficult to require for Nepal tourist visas, as previously discussed in Nepali Times. Countries have been slow to roll out formal passports, and barring entry to Nepal for all unvaccinated people could exclude individuals with medical conditions from necessary visits.
Enforcing vaccine proof when granting trekking permits would be much simpler. Vaccine cards already issued by every country, rather than formal vaccine passports, would be good enough for this purpose. The requirement would not exclude anyone from necessary travel since trekking is purely a pleasure activity.
Furthermore, Nepal’s trekking regions already require special permits and there are many checkpoints along the way to verify them. The policy could be as simple as requiring the vaccine proof when giving the trekking permit. The Government would not need to invest in new infrastructure.
Nor would a vaccine passport requirement stop trekkers from coming to Nepal. Trekkers tend to be wealthy, health-conscious people with both the means and the motivation to get vaccinated. Ultimately, Nepal’s mountainous landscapes and outstanding people are an irresistible draw for foreigners. They will surely come, and will not endanger the people of Nepal, if the government lets them.
Michael Henry is a Canadian who has worked in the social sector in Zambia, Senegal, Nigeria, and India, and has written about trekking, mountains, and livelihoods for Red Bull, India Development Review, Mountain Life Media, and others.