A tourism industry hobbled by years of civil war and political instability looks to rebound as Nepal makes moves toward a lasting peace. Is it finally safe to go back?
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THIS PAST SUMMER, as a peace agreement materialized between leaders of Nepal’s Maoist rebellion and officials from the newly reinstated parliamentary government, Janardan Sharma, a Maoist deputy commander, told an interviewer on Kathmandu-based Radio Sagarmatha, “We have a dream of making Nepal into the Switzerland of Asia.”
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NepalShey-Phoksundo National Park
Of course, before hordes of happy Western travelers yodel their way across the Himalayan high country, the mountain kingdom needs to resolve one little problem: a ten-year-old civil war that has claimed more than 13,000 lives, closed roads, prompted dire warnings on government Web sites, and decimated a once flourishing tourist economy. But with May’s tentative cease-fire and the more detailed eight-point treaty signed by Maoist and government leaders on June 16, a permanent resolution may at last be on the horizon as the fall trekking season gets under way.
Locals have long argued that the risks to tourists have been perceived as far greater than they actually are, an impression that has been exacerbated, they claim, by the international media’s focus on the civil unrest in Nepal. But, regardless of the real dangers, the impact on tourism has been brutal.
“In 18 months starting in 2002, we went from a rate of about 1,500 guests per year, almost all of them American, to 40,” says Briton Duncan Baker, director of Ker & Downey Nepal, which operates four trekking lodges and a rafting camp in the Annapurna region. “And the levels are still at their lowest.”
All this is not to say that traveling in Nepal is now entirely risk-free the rebels have stated that they won’t disarm until a new constitution is formally drafted. But while some of the reports from the country have been shocking a pair of Russian climbers attacked with pipe bombs while driving outside of Kathmandu in April 2005; two female trekkers from Europe abducted and killed in the Nagarjun Forest, a wildlife reserve five miles from Kathmandu, five months later the reality is analogous to bear attacks in Alaska: disturbing but rare. After ten years, the total number of Western tourists caught in the crossfire numbers fewer than ten.
More than the threat of personal injury, the biggest problem presented by the insurgency has simply been the inconvenience. Frequent roadblocks have curtailed travel around the country and hampered the movement of supplies; the primary point has seemed to be to frustrate Nepalese travelers so that they would, in turn, pressure the government to negotiate with the rebels. Most climbers and trekkers have circumvented this problem by simply flying over the troubled rural areas. Trips to Khumbu, the northeastern region home to Everest, usually disembark from Lukla, a 55-minute flight from Kathmandu. As a result, the climbing industry has been largely unaffected over the years. The number of Everest expeditions in recent years is unparalleled.
“The Khumbu has continued to be one of the safest places to trek,” says Narendra Gurung, a native Nepali who runs the Asian programs for Mountain Travel Sobek, a tour outfitter based in Emeryville, California. “The rebels know they can’t afford to target= tourists, because it would only hurt everyone.”
Other popular spots, like Chitwan National Park, in south-central Nepal, and the Annapurna trekking circuit, located northwest of Kathmandu near the center of the country, have also been largely trouble-free. And by this summer, most official warnings were easing: Denmark, Britain, Germany, France, and Italy were suggesting that visitors exercise caution in Nepal rather than warning them away from the country altogether. The U.S. State Department also downgraded its advisory, instructing Americans to avoid road travel “in some areas outside of the Kathmandu valley” a considerable improvement over its previous statement urging American citizens to “defer non-essential travel to Nepal.”
This comes as particularly good news for Nepal’s heavily tourism-dependent economy, which has been crippled in recent years by the reduction in visitors. Though the industry has shown susceptibility to every downturn such as King Gyanendra’s February 2005 declaration of a state of emergency, which led to an immediate 43 percent drop in tourist arrivals it has also demonstrated a remarkable resiliency in the wake of any good news. (A cease-fire in 2003 led to a 14 percent jump in arrivals the following year.) So if the current cooling of hostilities turns out to be permanent, Nepal will be ready to reclaim its place as an icon of adventure travel.
There are already signs of optimism on the ground, as U.S.-based tour operators ramp up for the fall trekking season historically the busiest, since September, October, and November typically provide clear skies and cool days. Mountain Travel Sobek, Geographic Expeditions, and Wilderness Travel, three of the most established outfitters in Nepal, all have trips planned in the Everest region, most running from 12 to 21 days.
“Trekking in Nepal is on a lot of people’s life lists,” says Barbara Banks, director of new-trip development for Wilderness Travel, which, like many other outfitters, has been offering skittish travelers alternatives like Bhutan, the Indian Himalayas, or Tibet. “Even though we can still blow their minds in the Himalayas of northern India, they want the brand-name experience.”
Of course, that means Americans have to be willing to spend brand-name dollars, since two-week commercial trips still run about $2,500, not including airfare. On the other hand, intrepid DIYers, once in-country, have been able to take advantage of Nepal’s wartime discount: lodging and airfare prices that have dropped by as much as 50 percent. While it may be impossible to predict how long the Nepal peace process will take some experts predict that a new constitution will be drafted as early as this fall or if it will stick, the near future looks bright for anyone who’s got Nepal on their to-do list.
“If the roadblocks are over, we’re going to see a dramatic improvement,” says Duncan Baker, of Ker & Downey. “I think we’ll be advertising again in 2007 and back to normal by 2008.”