Sudeep Risal is the kind of guy who works hard six months of the year and lives one day at a time. Originally from Sindhupalchok, Risal has been a trekking guide for 13 years.
During the peak trekking seasons of March-May and September-November, Risal makes between Rs 550-700 a day leading groups through trails around the country, excluding tips and gifts.
While he finds the basic pay satisfactory, Risal feels it is the clients he makes friends with and their generosity that makes his vocation special - one of his two sons is currently in school, sponsored by a Swiss tourist Risal met on a trek.
Stories like Risal's are in danger of becoming tales of the past, given the labour unions' heavy-handed approach in demanding more pay and benefits for their members. Just last Sunday, the Maoist-affiliated All Nepal Tourism Workers Union (ANTWU) called for trekking agencies to stop sending out guides, porters, cooks and helpers until the Travel and Trekking Regulations are implemented. The guidelines stipulate an average two-fold increase in wages and insurance coverage among other conditions.
The move could not have come at a worse time. A strike in the middle of trekking season places great pressure on trekking agencies to accede to ANTWU's demands. But it is the workers themselves who will bear the brunt in lost wages, which make up a large portion of their annual income.
While unions such as ANTWU have worked to improve the lot of tourism workers through the years, "what they are presently asking for is unrealistic", says Som Thapa, First Vice President of the Trekking Agencies' Association of Nepal (TAAN). "Trekking companies will have to charge customers much more in response."
Padam Ghale, founder of Mandala and Shambhala trekking agencies, which employ more than 300 staff during peak periods, concurs. "Times have changed. Thirty years ago, we only received 30 rupees a day," he says, adding, "these big unions are usually associated with political parties. When they fight for their members, they create goodwill among them and build political pressure at the same time. Until there is political stability in Nepal this will not change."
Labour unions seem to be in an apparent win-win position, and are clear on the need to implement the trekking regulations agreed on by the unions and TAAN last year. In fact, Khagendra Kafle, central committee member of ANTWU, claims the regulations should have been implemented by December, and says they began an awareness campaign ahead of the trekking season. "We are ready to negotiate, but are going to push this through, definitely. We will send back tourists if we need to." Fellow unions, such as the Trade Union Congress, agree on the principle of ANTWU's stir, though not the methods and timing. Vice-President Rewati Adhikari says, "The demands are fair and we support them."
But ANTWU is also betting on the unwillingness of tourism business owners to hold out for too long before losses start to eat away at their bottom line. In their push to gain more political clout, what the unions are forgetting, are the very people they represent. They might be able to get away with playing their members like chips in a casino in the short run, but they could face a backlash in the event of a prolonged strike. Ideology and camaraderie cannot feed a hungry man.
For a country that depends heavily on tourism, worth about 25 billion rupees last year, things like this happen far too frequently, especially given the industry's recent recovery from the decade-long civil war. The Nepal Tourism Year 2011 initiative aims to bring in a million tourists, but that appears a little far-fetched at the moment. If the country and the tourism industry cannot get their own house in order and provide the necessary support and services, tourists will be hard-pressed to include Nepal on their itineraries. No one will be a winner then.
Pressing concerns - FROM ISSUE #494 (19 MARCH 2010 - 25 MARCH 2010)
Outgoing tourists - FROM ISSUE #494 (19 MARCH 2010 - 25 MARCH 2010)
Borrrring! - FROM ISSUE #494 (19 MARCH 2010 - 25 MARCH 2010)