Trekking in Nepal is open for business

All photos courtesy of PEMBA NORBU SHERPA

Till two years ago, Pemba Norbu Sherpa was a happy-go-lucky trekking guide from Phakding on the Everest Trail. Things were looking up, he was getting trekking clients to guide and would travel to Langtang, Annapurnas and other trails in Nepal.

He made many international friends, and endeared himself with his joyful outlook on life. After a day’s hard trek, he would pitch tents, get the food ready, and the next morning would build a plump snowman. Pemba Norbu’s joie de vivre and humour were infectious.

After the 2015 earthquake his trekking business had started to pick up again. He set up his business and had already saved up some money to build a new house for his elderly parents.

All of that changed with the pandemic. “Before the lockdown, I had a high-quality life,” he recalls. “And before that, I had a beautiful carefree childhood. Covid killed the business.”

Some of Pemba Norbu’s childhood friends were infected, and he could not see them because of the lockdown and the need for physical distancing. A few of them and their families died.

Not only was Pemba cut off from his friends and family, but the dream of a new house for his parents is also now a thing of the past. He lost his job, cutting off his income completely.  “Due to Covid, all my treks to Everest and Mustang in the past two years were cancelled,” Pemba explains.

Before the pandemic, tourism was Nepal’s fourth-largest industry by employment, with over a million people directly dependent on it. While revenue from tourism contributes only 7% to the national GDP, here in the remote mountains of Nepal, entire villages depend on income from trekking and climbing expeditions.

The collapse of tourism also had an indirect impact. Locals had no market any more for their produce like potatoes, vegetables and poultry products. Hotel staff, cleaners, cooks were all laid off. Guides and porters have had no work for two years.

“I spent the second lockdown in the mountains and the people here don’t have a job or money or anything,” says Pemba. “One of my clients from France helped me financially to distribute rice and salt to the families in Phakding, but there was nothing else I could do to help my fellow villagers.”

Finally, there seems to be good news. New Covid infection cases and fatalities are falling across Nepal, and with the vaccination drive picking up, tourism is expected to pick up speed by next spring. Everyone has their fingers crossed that there will be no third wave.

“We want to restart our business, but we also need to be vaccinated so that when we are with our clients we can work without any fear of infection,” says Pemba. “We are going through a lot, but we have always been neglected by the state and its incompetent leaders.”

Indeed, although nearly 23% of Nepalis above 18 are now vaccinated, most of them in the cities and remote areas of the country have yet to get adequate doses. As long as the vaccine is not distributed equitably, the threat of the virus, especially among local Sherpa guides who have to work closely with travellers will be at heightened risk.

Following Nepal’s revised immigration entry protocol,  tourists can now get visas on arrival and those fully vaccinated against Covid with the second dose 14 days before the date of travel, will no longer have to quarantine after landing in Kathmandu. In addition to vaccine certificates and a negative PCR test report, visitors also need to fill out an electronic form.

Some travellers did come back in the spring of 2021  after the government relaxed the lockdown. But it was not enough to revive local economies. “We got some 300 tourists who were here to climb Everest,” says Pemba. “It didn’t help much with the income as much as it created fear of the virus with some patients at the base camp.”

Back in Phakding, independent travelers have started to trickle in, but there is also a new phenomenon of Nepali trekkers who are exploring their country in ever larger numbers after the lockdowns.

In fact, most trekkers these days in the lodges of Phakding are Nepali. Pemba is regaining some of his cheerfulness and hope for the future. He says: “Things are starting to get better even if marginally, tourists are returning. I might be able to build a new house for my parents after all.”