High-end hilltop hideaways present the best way to rebuild tourism in earthquake-hit areas
The view from Gorkha Gaun: Gorkha Himal, the ridge of Gorkha Durbar and Gorkha town at its base
Nepal’s mountain tourism has been in decline in the past decade due to the rapid spread of jeep tracks, and in the past year because of the earthquake. But trekking could be revived with a new brand of tourism that combines hilltop properties with upgraded homestays that benefits local populations.
Traditionally, the well-to-do of the hills have owned the khet (irrigated fields) in the besi (valley floors), with the unirrigated bari land on the ridgeline and hilltops thumka left to the poor. But with the spread of motorable roads, the prize is (or will be) the thumka properties that had been limited to meager harvests of corn, millet or buckwheat.
The value of thumka sites lies in the Himalayan vistas they command. Hilltops also tend to be remote enough that many will adjoin lush community forests, with their riches in flora, fauna and avian life.
But the most attractive aspect of thumka tourism is its promise of uplifting the poorest, including the Dalit and Janajati communities. We need a policy that helps local owners enjoy the benefits of hilltop tourism rather than being simply bought off.
What the tourism entrepreneurs with an eye for hilltops can provide is the finesse required to ensure that the visitors pay appropriately for the views, cultural ambience and hospitality. High-end tourists require not only amenities but historical and cultural context. To begin with, the quality of today’s homestays must be improved, so that room rates are on average three to five times what they are presently.
Fortunately, from Namo Buddha Resort in Kavre to Tiger Mountain Lodge of Kaski, we already have successful examples of hilltop tourism, establishments that have set a standard for architecture, landscaping, fittings, cuisine, furniture and service that do justice to the vistas and cultural offerings.
It is not that, as a concept, hilltop hideaways are a novelty – think of the Kakani retreat of the British residents, or Takashi Miyahara’s Hotel Everest View at Syangboche which opened as early as 1971. Now, post-April 2015 earthquake we must contemplate quality tourism centered on the thumkas.
To understand the bounce-back ability of Nepali entrepreneurship, we may look at the Gorkha Gaun Resort, standing on a low ridge south of Gorkha town. The lodge, a venture of the local thumka owner and two US-returned Kathmandu entrepreneurs, had been open for just seven months when the earthquake hit, with its epicenter in the district itself. The buildings had all to be pulled down, and the proprietors required to revive their enthusiasm and arrange additional financing.
While reconstruction programs have languished in most earthquake-hit areas, Gorkha Gaun’s reconstruction is almost complete, and the place is open for business once more. The place is a showcase for 'thumka tourism'. Located at 900 m it has a spectacular view of the High Himalaya from Langtang in the east to Dhaulagiri to the west.
As seen from the resort, the mountain on which Gorkha Durbar is located is fortuitously situated in the gap between Ganesh Himal and Gorkha Himal, allowing full views of both these ranges. To the west of Gorkha Himal (Manaslu, Himalchuli, Baudha, Ngadi Chuli), also in surprising close-up, are the peaks of the Annapurna Himal.
Gorkha Gaun is surrounded by community forests teeming with birdlife and a scattering of hamlets. The district headquarter is a 15 minute drive away, and the Gorkha Durbar complex is about as ‘culturo-historical’ as you can get, including the palace of founding king Prithvi Narayan, the temple of Kali, and the hermitage of the great yogi Gorakh Nath.
The rebuilt Gorkha Gaun has retained its slates on the roof, local black rock for the floor tiles, Chitwan bamboo furniture, and locally crafted windows and doors. Shampoo for the shower is placed in brass containers rather than plastic tubes, and the cotton towels are actually absorbent.
Long slabs of local rock make up the benches along Gorkha Gaun’s walkways. The proprietors have set up concentric hikes, one that circles the immediate thumka, another traveling down to the Leudi river valley, and a five-hour trek that takes you to Manakamana Temple and cable car.
Gorkha Gaun speaks for Nepal’s tourism entrepreneurs who will not be browbeaten by earthquakes, and who understand the high value of hilltops for the society and economy. Most importantly, these entrepreneurs understand that Nepal should not sell itself cheap when it has such a monopoly over so much that the world wants to experience.
Tourism is down, but not out, Om Astha Rai
Where have all tourists gone?, Tsering Dolker Gurung