The trips before TripAdvisor

Media promotion and press freedom were done differently then

Hillary Clinton, then First Lady of the US, brought her own press corps of over 40 media followers during her Chitwan visit in 1985, with Tiger Tops staff

In ancient times, prior to the advent of social media and the internet, we did well using traditional print, newspapers and magazines in which to spread the word that Nepal was the fashionable cultural destination of choice and a must-visit for discerning adventurers.

It was my job to brief the press and ensure a constant stream of travel, wildlife and adventure articles about Tiger Tops and Mountain Travel Nepal. Those distant days of innocence predated the invention of fake news, Twitter storms, Instagram poses and Facebook rants.

Us tourism operators were not forced to worship at the altar of TripAdvisor ratings, flinch before the terrors of instant online feedback, or tremble at deliberate disinformation by a disgruntled customer.

Disagreement with a published opinion resulted at worst in throwing the offending journal across the room in disgust or, if you were British, in a restrained rustle of newsprint to express your irritation. There was time to cogitate and ruminate before a response was required, not the instant flick of a ‘like’, hasty hashtag or damning emoji. Wafer-thin blue airletters were written to parents and friends, and queuing expectantly and often disappointed at poste restante near the Sundhara was part of a backpacker’s routine.

Not that I’m regretting the communication limitations of the old days, as the daily hours spent gazing at the sleek black beauty of my iPhone will testify. But a different approach was demanded in the 1970s when we had to laboriously punch a tape to send a message by telex, or wait for a cabled telegram to be delivered to our Darbar Marg offices. Telephone was confined to a crackly line via India, if you were lucky.

Often guests would walk in through the glass-panelled front doors, adorned with tiger head logo and the blue Pan Am symbol, before news of their arrival had landed on our desks. All reservation lists and communication with the outside world from our Chitwan lodge was by hard copy in a livid green drawstring cloth bag hand carried on the daily flight.

In order to promote Nepal tours and treks, we wooed editors, writers and journalists with tempting free trips and unusual story lines. All kinds of clever ideas were dreamed up to cost-effectively achieve the column inches and even multiple pages of coverage so coveted to encourage international markets to visit our remote Himalayan kingdom.

I soon learned that fashion magazines appreciated an exotic jungle backdrop to contrast with haute couture and evening gowns, and so Tiger Tops achieved many pages in Vogue, Harpers Queen, Town & Country and the like by hosting supermodels and fashion photographers with their entourage of stylists and wardrobe of clothes.

We persuaded outdoor adventure clothing companies to shoot mail order catalogues along Himalayan trekking trails or draped over jeeps, and gained gratuitous editorial by winning awards from travel publications. Luxury names such as Tiffany, Cartier and Louis Vuitton brought their exquisite collections to be photographed amidst the bamboo and thatch of our wildlife camps, resulting in glamorous printed advertisements and coffee table books presenting their brands to a target audience we sought to attract to Nepal.

Royals, celebrities and special events were particularly helpful in creating a media frenzy that we could leverage to promote the country. During the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1980 we achieved great coverage of the Royal Trek until the murder of John Lennon knocked Nepal off the front page of the world's newspapers.

Commissioned by a UK glossy, Don McCullin, arguably last century’s most celebrated war photographer, frolicked on the Meghauli polo field capturing unique images of elephants and personalities pounding happily around the pitch in pursuit of a very small ball with very long sticks. Don not only helped put Chitwan on the map during an early world elephant polo championship but also trekked into the Annapurnas, then returned on holiday to Kathmandu on one of his honeymoons.

Even though we nurtured and cherished our visiting media guests, we had no control about what they would actually write. Freedom of the press is an essential central pillar of a functioning democracy, but that did not stop us trying to influence media stories with crafted suggestions that supported our market image. It did not always work.

Nepal has long suffered from the ‘Everest, highest rubbish dump in the world’ sobriquet, even long after the Sherpas organised the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee to solve the problem. “Good news,” I greeted a newspaper journo as he prepared to fly to Lukla. “The Khumbu is now clean and free of trash. Chris Bonington told us only last week he saw more rubbish on the streets of London than on the trails of the Everest region.”

“That’s nice,” retorted the writer, dourly. “But my editor has told me to write a story about the rubbish on Everest, so that’s what we will publish.”

Despite such frustrations, I enjoyed dealing with the vagaries of the press corps. On one memorable occasion I found myself in the lair of one of the most notorious media barons - the Murdoch empire headquarters in Sydney. But I was not at News Corp Australia to generate copy. Patriarch Rupert Murdoch’s eldest son, Lachlan, had asked me to stop by to discuss arrangements for his honeymoon.

Graduating to the inner sanctum, I was ushered into a blinding sunlit office. Lachlan was an engaging kid in 1999, with an athletic build and thick brown curls, his desk strewn with photos of Labradors. We talked dogs and trekking and it soon transpired that after Nepal he was keen to include Bhutan to wow his blond British model fiancé, Sarah O’Hare.

“Because it’s the one place our private plane can’t reach -- due to the pilot restrictions landing into Paro. I want to take her somewhere special. It will be fun for us to fly commercial.”

It turned out to be a memorable honeymoon as the couple arrived from Sydney economy class on Thai International, despite our best efforts we were unable to clear business seats. Lounging after dinner on our Kathmandu sofa, Lachlan and Sarah held hands and laughed at our concern. “It was a novelty for us to fly commercial and to fly economy. No worries.”

I sighed with relief . Freedom of the press took on a whole new perspective.

Lisa Choegyal


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