What sustainable tourism means in practice

An Annapurna trek is a vivid illustration of how tourism, if done well, transforms livelihoods


A 4-day family trek last month was vivid proof of the truth in the old adage: it is the journey and the people that truly matter, not just the destination.

It was word-of-mouth recommendation that brought us to the sustainable tourism company Three Sisters, owned and run by women. The guides assured us our children would be well taken care of and our group of novice trekkers would not be rushed.

As we negotiated the uphill steps, passing gushing waterfalls and forests ablaze with rhododendron, we had plenty of time to get to know our two experienced guides and the eight support staff. Their life stories highlighted the transformative power of sustainable, ethical, and empowering tourism in shaping lives and journeys.


Yasudhara is literally a trailblazer. A mother of a 7-year-old, she has had to seamlessly blend her caring role at home with her professional responsibilities as a guide in a male dominated and uncertain industry. Besides leading the pack, Yasudhara kept our children motivated and entertained, leaving an indelible mark on them.

By the journey’s end, the little ones of our foreign friends soaked Nepali phrases. “जाम जाम” became their spirited rallying cry as we moved up and down the trails. Even as Yasudhara sometimes told them to slow down with “बिस्तारै बिस्तारै” it was the rhythmic chant of “जाम जाम” that followed.

Sustainable tourism in Annapurna

When she first became a guide, Yasudhara recalled she had to defy her family’s wishes. They were skeptical of her choice of career to lead foreigners through Nepal’s remote, rural landscapes. The workplace was equally challenging. At that time, no one was accustomed to female guides, and accommodations were scarce.

Yasudhara slept in dining rooms and outdoors, keeping her distance from male guides who often drank and indulged in unwelcome behaviour. But times have changed. Female-led teams from Three Sisters now guide trekkers all over Nepal.

But now, Yasudhara grapples with the guilt of leaving her child behind, even though she is shaping a future where her son will understand the power of gender equality and women’s economic empowerment. “I want to earn my keep, without having to rely on my brothers and husband,” Yasudhara tells us during a rest stop.

Tila is in her mid-30s, and thrived as a guide before the pandemic, navigating and overcoming many gender stereotypes and challenges in her profession. Starting as an assistant at the agency, she steadily climbed the ranks to become a permanent guide, earning a modest base salary and commissions.

She enjoys preferential access to trips involving foreign visitors. During peak seasons, work flows steadily, allowing her to hibernate during quieter times. She also seized learning opportunities provided by her employer. She participated in courses on the ecosystems of trekking regions, cultural sensitivity, first aid and emergency response, navigation and route knowledge, and sharpening her English proficiency.

Sustainable tourism in Annapurna

Then, the pandemic struck. Trekkers vanished. Tila’s gratitude for finally returning to work is tempered by the reality that Nepal’s trekking industry has not fully recovered. This was her fourth consecutive trek, leaving her cautiously optimistic. Yet the trail ahead remains uncertain.


The eight assistants who accompanied us, three women and five men, were more than ‘porters’. This was a group of eight remarkable individuals, distinct from traditional porters found on trekking trails and their significance extended far beyond carrying our gear.

Kusum, 19, harbours dreams of being the first in her family to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Commerce from a college in Pokhara. Her motivation for joining the trek was twofold: to earn enough to pay for her accommodation expenses, and eventually to earn the experience to be a guide herself one day. With every step she took, she carried not only her backpack but also her aspiration for a brighter future.

Sita, 36, is a single mother with three children. She is from a landless Dalit family, and lives in a rented house by the highway. Entrusting her 17-year-old to care for younger siblings, she works for Three Sisters during peak trekking season and returns to her village to take up the odd agricultural work with meagre wages. Despite challenges, she finds solace in the decent work provided by the trekking company. For women like her from disadvantaged backgrounds, these opportunities are lifelines. “There is so little work in my village, and the money I earn on these treks helps educate and feed my children,” she says.

Yogesh, like many young Nepali men, wants to migrate abroad. He is at the crossroads of his past and an unwritten future. “Our villages are empty, there are few young people left,” he says. “All my friends have gone overseas for work. I am thinking of doing the same.” For Yogesh, this trek symbolised a bridge between two worlds, a chance to bear the costs of recruitment fees for a job overseas instead of his family having to pay.

Khem is an older migrant returnee. His weathered hands bear the calluses of hard labour, each crease etched with memories from 15 years at a construction site in Dubai and two years in Qatar. He recounts how limited opportunities in Nepal drove him out, and his experience in the Gulf: “It was backbreaking work, so far away from my loved ones.”

Dhak Bahadur is in his late-40s and carries the weight of responsibility for his Dalit family back home. His two sons and daughter, on the cusp of adulthood, look up to him. “I want my children to have a better life, they should not endure the hardship I have known,” he says. His broad shoulders carry not only our rucksack, but dreams of education, stability and dignity for the next generation.

Sustainable tourism in Annapurna
Bimbika Sijapati Basnett (far left) with Three Sisters trekking guide. Sijapati is a researcher and practitioner working on gender and social development.

Three Sisters upholds a strict rule: Assistants carry no more than 10-12kg each. As customers, we also left a small space in our own rucksacks for their belongings. However, this essential work practice remains far from universal. Despite laws against heavy loads, most ‘porters’ are made to carry 30kg or more of trekking gear. After decades of carrying heavy loads up and down mountains, many have chronic spinal problems and headaches.

At rest stops, the men conversed among themselves, and I glimpsed the value they embraced: women led the way. The Three Sisters are leaving a legacy. Dhak Bahadur confides, “I want my daughter to be fluent in English and become part of a women-led tourism company too.”

A Nepal trek gives visitors a glimpse of the impact of migration and remittance on rural areas. Nearly half of the households have at least one family member working abroad, or someone who has returned from overseas or India. They are predominantly men aged 20-44, and form the backbone of the country’s most productive workforce.

Along the trail, we can see evidence of newfound prosperity from remittances, allowing many families to break free from poverty and deprivation. Yet migration is far from being a seamless journey. It begins with the challenge of pooling resources to cover direct and indirect costs. Upon return, a lingering question returns, 'what next?' as migrant returnees grapple with reintegration.

Migrants, dreamers, carriers of hope shuffle along with silent footsteps along stone steps amidst a stunning backdrop of Annapurna and Machapuchre suffused in the golden light of sunrise. Each step is a promise that every ascent, every descent, is a collective endeavour towards a world where equality, opportunity and compassion bloom brightly like the rhododendron.