Mountain tourism was supposed to help Nepal recover after the devastating earthquake in April, but a combination of unexpected policy decisions, corruption and a damaging blockade of the Indian border has battered confidence and limited numbers. Even so, as Ed Douglas reports, there is optimism the next year will be better.
I hadn’t expected Ang Tsering to look so happy. The three-term president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) has been under pressure lately, following the government’s decision in July to strip the NMA of its crown jewels: Nepal’s 33 so-called trekking peaks. These peaks – essentially a national resource – have been a banker for the NMA for more than 40 years. In the fiscal year ending 2013, the NMA sold permits to more than 3,000 climbers for Island Peak alone, costing each of them $250 in high season. Estimates vary, but from the NMA’s own figures, selling trekking peaks earns the organisation around half a million pounds a year.
Losing its main source of income was a devastating blow for the NMA but sitting outside his son’s restaurant in the smart shopping arcade of Babar Mahal, Ang Tsering was beaming. Three days earlier, Nepal’s supreme court had overturned the government’s bid to take back the trekking peaks, restoring the status quo. The NMA might not have won the war – the government’s next move is awaited – but they had certainly won a significant victory.
Recovering its revenue stream was vital for the NMA’s work. It underpins welfare payments for the families of dead mountain tourism workers and subsidises the NMA’s extensive training programme. There are now 33 international mountain guides and 52 aspirants who have relied on this support for half their course costs.
Ang Tsering said: "The income generated from those mountains is negligible for the nation’s budget, but the NMA has become successful in managing funds for the promotion and development of mountain tourism of Nepal globally."
The government’s intervention was just one more piece of bad news for Nepali tourism. The world has heard a great deal about last year's earthquake and about the bitter political crisis that deprived ordinary Nepalis of fuel, cooking gas and even basic medicines throughout autumn and into winter. Activists from the southern plains of Nepal, angry at the new constitution rushed through in the wake of April’s earthquake, have been blockading Nepal’s border with India for months. The shortage of gas cylinders and aviation fuel hit tourism operators just as hard.
Privately, climbing agencies acknowledge trekking peak sales are down by two thirds, to around a thousand climbers for the post-monsoon season. The government’s decision had further impact on the already dismal numbers. The NMA can issue permits in a day; the tourism ministry can take up to two weeks, discouraging those who decide to climb at short notice. And the majority of those who climb in Nepal do so on an NMA permit. There are hundreds of government peaks, but the NMA has proved far more successful at marketing Nepal as a climbing destination than the tourism ministry.
Not everyone was dismayed that the NMA had lost control of trekking peaks. Nepal is mired in corruption and the country’s tourism organisations are no exception. Recent investigations by anti-corruption officials into the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN) showed that much of the income from the new trekking permit it issues – the Trekkers’ Information Management System – has been spent by officials on foreign travel or otherwise misappropriated. "Money meant for workers in the trekking industry was shamelessly spent on private junkets," said one official from the Nepal Tourist Board. TAAN’s new executive committee, elected in October, refused to take up its duties until the scale of the corruption was publicly exposed.
The NMA’s position as an industry body representing both commercial operators and the interests of climbers also causes concern. The number of delegates, including one tourism ministry official, attending UIAA meetings recently has raised eyebrows. But despite the obvious conflicts of interest, most experts judge the NMA a better custodian of climbing’s interests than the government.
Its idea to stop the collapse in mountaineering tourism was to slash insurance payouts for high-altitude workers on peaks below 6,500m. But despite cutting rescue and medical cover by 60 percent, the saving to foreign climbers will only be 25 percent, hardly the kind of measure to reassure either workers or tourists concerned that their staff are properly protected. More changes to regulations on Everest are also being mooted.
Tourism operators will be praying that the myriad problems affecting the country will have retreated by the spring season. In late December, parliament finally signed off a bill releasing billions in earthquake reconstruction aid. There are diplomatic and political moves underway to solve the blockade. And while Nepal’s climbing and trekking institutions seem mired in controversy, debate and new ideas about what a successful and well-managed mountain tourism industry should look like are still being heard.
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