Himalayan Travel: Upping the Trekker's Ante

Outside magazine, April 1992

Himalayan Travel: Upping the Trekker's Ante
By David Noland

The litany I heard on a Kathmandu street last November was all too familiar: "Hey, man, change dollars? I give you black-market rate." Less familiar, though, was the young man reciting it: a Westerner, a Dutch kid with a backpack and a fistful of rupees to unload--an early victim of recent turmoil in Himalayan bureaucracies and new Nepalese currency regulations.

In Nepal, and to a lesser degree throughout the Himalayas, the cost of trekking--especially long-term independent trekking--is on the rise. To increase revenues, Nepal's Home Ministry recently doubled single-entry visa fees to $20, raised multiple-entry fees to $80, and increased visa extension fees by $5-$10 per week. That may seem minimal, but here's the kicker: To extend a visa, a traveler must not only pay the fee, but also show receipts proving he or she has changed $20 into Nepalese rupees--at official rates, forgoing the 20 percent black-market premium--for each day of the extension.

"How the heck do you spend $20 a day on the trail in Nepal?" asks Bruce Klepinger, president of Ibex Expeditions, which runs trips in the Himalayas. "In remote places, room and board run as low as 60 cents a night--up to $5 if you pay top dollar for a guide." Those on prepaid outfitted treks really get burned; they have virtually nothing on which to spend their additional rupees.

How to beat the $20-a-day rule? Since on-the-spot visas issued at the Kathmandu airport are good for 15 days and most treks take three or four weeks, get a 30-day visa in advance back in the States. Even if you extend your trek, you shouldn't have to extend your visa by more than a few days. By the way, don't submit phony currency receipts; those who've tried it are reportedly languishing in a Kathmandu jail.

Nepal also plans to double trekking permit fees to $15-$25 per week, except in remote border areas, where permits would soar to $250 per week. Nepal's Trekking Agents Association continues to fight the proposal.

The upside of this bureaucratic wrangling is that trekkers may soon gain access to previously closed areas in Nepal, such as Upper Dolpo, site of Peter Matthiessen's classic trek in The Snow Leopard. In fact, for three weeks last fall, the entire country was declared open to trekking, though the off-limits signs went back up as the government mulled over tighter regulations. At press time, reopening of the areas was expected by summer, with stiff fees and strict trekker quotas.

Elsewhere in the Himalayas, India backed down from last fall's huge hike in one-year visa fees and settled on a reasonable scale of $5 for 30 days, $25 for six months, and $50 for a year. In Tibet the big news is that the Chinese have closed Mount Kailas, the Buddhist sacred mountain, indefinitely. And Bhutan, which has never been easily accessible, is still charging top dollar for treks, but management of the trekking business was recently turned over to local private outfitters. "It's a major improvement," says Brent Olson of InnerAsia Expeditions. "Now we can shop around, with outfitters competing for our business." For now, however, the chance of benefiting from price wars in Bhutan is about the same as that of sighting a yeti.

Filed To: Snow Sports
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