This time of year, Jomsom should be bustling with trekkers headed down from Thorung La and waiting for flights to Pokhara and pilgrims walking up to Muktinath. This year, all you have are tumbleweeds blown up the dusty banks of the Kali Gandaki by the fierce afternoon wind.
Lodge owners here don't remember things being as bad as this, even in the autumn of 2001. There used to up to 800 trekkers moving up and down through Jomsom during peak season. These days ,there are barely a100 tourists.
If it is any consolation, Pokhara is even more deserted. In fact, the big difference with previous years is that the tourists who are here seem to have skipped Pokhara completely or just overnighted there.
The lodge owners are competing against each other for the stragglers. Undercutting is rife and trekkers have learnt to bargain hard and bring prices down.
Jomsom is the air head for trekkers going to Mustang or pilgrims visiting Muktinath and one wonders why there has been a drop. This is not a Maoism hotspot, it is a tourism hotspot. The stupendous north face of Nilgiri looms over the town, the new airport is clean and efficient, the people are friendly and the food is wholesome. But tourism has hit rock bottom, and so have the prices.
Every trekking guidebook about Nepal recommends that tourists bargain because prices tend to be hiked. But this does not refer to the food and lodging rates. "Everyone wants to bargain nowadays," says Pramila Gauchan of Xanadu Hotel in Jomsom, "earlier it used to be only Israeli tourists but now it's the Americans and the Europeans as well. The other day I was shocked when tourists came to my hotel and said they would pay for food and drinks but wanted the rooms for free."
Maya Thakali, a member of the Upper House, tells us, "This lack of tourism has affected Jomsom drastically and not only has tourism gone down but due to the lack of tourists even agriculture is suffering. People are not able to cope and so look away when underhanded tactics are used to incite tourists to their lodges."
At a time when many hotel owners can barely meet running costs, this is suicide. Gauchan remembers that 15 years ago, she could run a small restaurant easily without having to bother about bargaining or makings ends meet, a time when she would barely have time to sit down and eat, much less worry about having tourists come and eat. And Along the Annapurna trail, hoteliers had agreed not to let prices slide.
"The competition is killing," says Gauchan, "everyone is trying to steal guests from each other." They line up outside the airport waiting to pounce at the first possible guest, offering rooms at impossible prices to try and make up their costs. "It's bad for business and they won't be able to keep it up in the long run," Technically, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project fixes all lodge and food prices and this system worked well from Manang to Jomsom. Now, with the numbers falling, it is a cut-throat business.
To resuscitate the ailing tourism business, Jomsom Mountain Resort is now trying to promote local tourism, targeting Nepalis and Indians. "Domestic tourism is picking up and they even tip better," says Vinaya K Singh of Jomsom Mountain Resort, " and we are promoting packages to incite local tourists to come to Jomsom." (see Interview)
Because of the army's mountain warfare training camp nearby, security in Jomsom is tight and an unofficial curfew begins at eight each night. But it is the strikes and blockades on the Pokhara trail that affect Jomsom more than what happens here. Gauchan adds: "Most of us have managed to stay afloat."