In Dolpa, as elsewhere, it is not simply a question of ‘more’ tourism, but tourism of the ‘right’ kind
The Bharbun River that drains the north side of Dhaulagiri is so off the beaten track that it is rare to meet another soul on the path.
At a school courtyard at Seri (3,900 m) boarding pupils from far-flung villages are beginning to arrive for the new semester. With 65 pupils, three teachers — two government and one community-hired — the school that was built with assistance from a French trekker, just goes up to Grade 3. But it is hoping to add a new class each year.
“The government promises, but nothing happens. We can’t wait for them to help us,” parents lamented. Few are literate but they want their children to learn, in the hope of a better life. Farmers here barely survive on oats and potatoes, supplemented by harvests of yarsa.
Committed to spread our expenditure to benefit the local community, we asked a young couple to prepare food for us. They were surprised but agreed, and once the payment for the first night’s meal was in their hands they asked us to come for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“It’s been a poor yarsa season this year,” the husband explained, cradling his young daughter. “I returned empty-handed.”
Six hours down the trail in Dhadagain, there was a school but no teachers. “They come and they quit. No one stays,” said the woman who prepared our food. “Now we send our children to Seri. It’s costs more because they have to board.”
Two days walk away in Chharke (4,200 m), which was featured in Eric Valli’s film Caravan, two girls aged 12 and 13 (pictured, above) showed us around their school. Both are in Grade 2.
They did not know where they would go to school next year.
Nepal’s largest district in area is also the most sparsely populated, and running schools in Dolpa is a challenge.
Children are scattered and retaining teachers is difficult. But these are excuses, not reasons. If lack of budget is the main constraint, some of the $500 that every foreign trekker in Upper Dolpa has to pay the government could be ploughed back. In 2014, the district received 469 tourists, thus generating Rs 25,199,370 in revenue — more than enough to improve schools and health services in Dolpa.
“We don’t see any of that money,” said a hotel owner in Chharke. “The money is kept by Kathmandu. If we could get more tourism here we could afford to fund the schools ourselves.”
It is not simply a question of ‘more’ tourism, but of the ‘right’ tourism. Dolpa and other fragile mountain areas of Nepal need the type of trekker who injects money into the local economy so that communities will have the resources to spend on their own priorities, and not depend on the government to do things for them.
Just outside Chharke we came upon a well-equipped camp of a group of 10 trekkers guided by a foreign-based agency. Four of them were trekking the whole of the Great Himalayan Trail, and were on Day 120 out of 150. Each had paid $35,000 for the privilege. Some of that money went to Kathmandu for the Restricted Area fee and other permits. The remainder went to a foreign trekking company, with a slice of that to its Kathmandu-based partner. Most of the food was bought from Kathmandu or towns en route. None of the guides and porters was hired locally.
Not much of the money is left to filter into the local economy. Our modest trek probably put more money into the village economy than a high-budget trans-Himalayan trek.
One of the reasons the government gives for restricting access to Upper Dolpa with the $500 fee per trekker is protection of the local culture. Some controls are certainly necessary to preserve the history, traditions, and the natural environment. But looking at how parts of the Round Annapurna Trek have been spoilt by the intrusion of roads, one suspects this is a smokescreen.
There are two options for Upper Dolpa: one is to keep the current fee structure but for the government to channel half of the revenue back into the communities, by building infrastructure and providing top-up incentives for teachers to remain in their placements.
The second option is to simply reduce the fee to a level that would generate a surge in tourism that would benefit the local economy, but not so great a rush that it would overwhelm the cultural and natural environment. This option may be better since it gives greater choices to local people.
Un-trekked valleys such as the Bharbun should be promoted as new trekking routes, and locals encouraged to operate homestays. One challenge is that the exit routes from Bharbun Valley to the Kali Gandaki pass through Upper Dolpa, which would mean having to pay the $500 fee.
Allowing trekkers to exit the Bharbun Valley via Mukutgaon or Chharke to the Jungben La pass for a modest fee would encourage tourism, and indirectly support the health and education of villagers along the way.
Joy Stephens works with pro-poor tourism, and to improve children’s access to education.
Interlink with Go Do Phoksundo, Jay Poudyal
Peak Tourism, Kanak Mani Dixit
The great Himalayan traverse, Matt Miller
Educating Nepal, Bhrikuti Rai