From The Kathmandu Post (5 July, 2013)
Nepal needs to get into high-value tourism to raise income and employment but first, we need to properly understand our natural and cultural riches
In July 1988, Himal magazine’s first issue carried an interview with Sir Edmund Hillary, and when the subject turned to Himalayan tourism, he told this reporter, “…the young and the impecunious must not lose their access.”
Since then, I have been in respectful disagreement with the late Sir Edmund. While the impecunious must have the opportunity to travel to interesting places, there is also the right of a host society to earn as much as it can from the natural and cultural resources at its command. In Nepal, the goal would be to maximise income from tourism while optimising equity in the distribution of profits.
Nepal has consistently under-sold its assets, mainly, it seems, because we fail to appreciate their value. We have the entire central Himalaya from the Kanchenjunga to Api-Saipal as a gift of geology and history. The diversity in mountain communities, the Kathmandu Valley civilisation, the Lumbini and Janakpur regions (associated with not one but four historical Buddhas and Sita of the Ramayan), the power places, the jungles of Chitwan/Bardia, the birds and butterflies, the rafting and soaring—there is actually no other country in the world with this level of variety-in-quality.
There was a time about two decades ago when the prospect of achieving high-value tourism looked attainable. The advent of democracy had promoted hopes for egalitarian growth, the national airline had energy (and planes), trekking was booming. There was hot-air ballooning, ‘forbidden’ areas were opened up, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) was setting standards for trekking tourism and artifacts were being improvised for tourist consumption.
That was before the conflict began and dimmed prospects and reduced incomes, even though the Thamel tourist quarter and trekking destinations continued to develop in defiance. That was before we diligently worked at despoiling tourism, including muddying the rafting river of Trisuli by using its waters to wash the sand mined from the hillsides.
Back when Nepal was developing as a high-end destination, there was little spread of tourism profits. Today, there is a lot of spread but the conflict and continuing political turbulence has reduced income possibilities. The hotels may be full but at abysmal rates, with rooms in New Delhi selling at prices three or four times than those in Kathmandu.
Beyond the conflict and political chaos, we have not been able to achieve ‘haute tourism’ because we seem to lack the socialisation to provide for the simple needs of high-spending overseas travelers. We are naïfs when it comes to making the internal ambience of a lodge attractive to the visitor nor do we really understand the importance of dry bathrooms. The ‘tourist psychology’ must be appreciated if we would like to convert ‘home-stay’ villages into money-spinners, important also to keep the youth from fleeing.
Thankfully, during the ‘people’s war’ period, there were few incidents where tourists were directly targeted, but economists have yet to calculate the opportunity costs of the conflict. The fighting ended in 2006, but we have yet to enjoy a ‘peace dividend’ in tourism. Nor do we have ‘tourism scholars’ analysing the relationship between politics and tourism. Certainly no one has come forward to suggest the impact of holding elections smack in the middle of the autumn travel season.
If we had tourism scholars, they would be taking the lead today in helping us calibrate Nepal’s tourism for the future, with the slogan, “Maximise income and equity”. We need to wake up to the advent of roads and highways that are transforming the face of the trekking industry. Do we go higher, as with the Great Himalayan Trail, or simultaneously promote mid-hill trekking so that we can catch higher-spending middle-aged travelers?
It is time that tourism got its second wind through planning and innovation, based on the understanding that Nepal will remain ‘exotic’ only so long as we understand our assets. The KTM-Everest-KTM mountain flight has remained static for decades. Should we not talk to the Chinese for a profit-sharing Everest circumnavigation? And why not a mountain flight from Pokhara to Mount Kailash and back?
Chitwan must prepare for the inevitability of high-volume arrivals. Since elephants can only carry so many, a raised walkway would be useful for travelers to appreciate the forest fauna, undergrowth and canopy. Gorkha’s Palungtar airport could be a national hub for hang-gliding and micro-flights—under the unique ice fields of Lamjung himal. Alpine-style mountaineering must be promoted right up to Api-Saipal, so that the volume of climbers increases, and this can be triggered from Manang (the Chamonix of the Himalaya) with its proximity to ‘trekking peaks’.
Innovations are needed in cultural tourism. As an example, we should try to ensure that the ghatu meditative dance of the central midhills is only performed on the designated days of the calendar in the traditional sites rather than at dance restaurants in Pokhara and Kathmandu. Elsewhere, the beyuls of Nepal—the high sacred valleys—provide opportunity to develop tourism for the benefit of isolated communities.
Louvre to Lumbini
There is no dearth of resources and material to provide texture and depth to Himalayan tourism but we have not taken advantage of what is easily available, such as the writings of the raconteurs of the great age of Himalayan exploration, including Tilman, Shipton, Herzog and Tenzing Norgay. Few of our tourist guides can name and identify the mountain peaks seen even from Kathmandu: Dorje Lhakpa, Phurbi Ghyachu, Lonpogang or Choba Bhamare.
Likewise, we have barely begun to delve into the deep history of the Lumbini region. Together with the sites associated with the life of the Sakyamuni Siddhartha Gautam, from Kapilvastu to Ramgram, this landscape has been made spiritually hallowed by the three other historical Buddhas—Krakuchhand, Kasyap and Kanakmuni.
The possibilities are endless. With the increased incidence of the Gangetic winter fog, ‘sunshine tourism’ from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar up to the hill-stations of Bhedetar to Tansen will see a rise. Janakpur will be a fulcrum for South Asian pilgrim-tourism, far beyond the Mithila region. The Rara lake or the Khaptad plateau will be a sellout among South Asians. And we must plan to bring in the rich travelers of Lahore and Dhaka, weakening their romance with Bangkok and Dubai.
The old Rana palaces must be converted to hotels, following the trend of the Newar townhouses. This would require the government, which owns most of the standing palaces, to act innovatively in a private-public partnership. More detailed brochures are needed for the towns and bahas of the Kathmandu Valley, enough to keep a tourist in Kirtipur for a full day, for example. More localised artifacts and gifts must be developed, beyond the singing bowls and lakhe puppets.
Last week, whether at the grand Louvre museum of Paris or the Jungfraujoch—the high deurali in Switzerland’s Bernese Overland—there were Indian and Chinese tourists everywhere, and spending well. When a level of political stability is achieved, Nepal will be able to attract millions of travelers from its two neighbours alone.
Our challenge is to ensure value in mass tourism, a high-end industry that will increase profits for the exchequer, airlines, hoteliers, lodge owners, trekking/travel agencies and local communities—but jack up the take-home of porters, waiters, cooks, guides, artisans, taxi-drivers and kirana pasalwallahs.