Even though Kathmandu is preoccupied with the insurgency and political deadlock, trekking tourism survives. But barely.
Maoist extortion along the trails, news of violence and lingering instability are eroding confidence. There is also a longterm problem with the breakdown in management of national parks like the Sagarmatha. The protected region below the world's highest mountain has been declared a World Heritage Site. But there are significant environmental and social problems in the area which need to be addressed urgently. Otherwise there is danger that Sagarmatha may go into UNESCO's endangered list, like Kathmandu Valley.
On a recent 10-day trek to Gokyo, I had mixed feelings of ecstasy and worry. Despite everything, tourism is booming: Everest's pull, it seems, will overcome all the bad news. In October-November, 66,000 tourists will visit Nepal compared to 47,000 in the same period last year. The NTB campaign that tourists are not the target in the conflict is obviously working.
Sagarmatha National Park is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and yet visitors are constantly reminded of the unsustainability of development in this fragile region. Trekking below Everest is an international tour product like safaris in Africa or diving off the Thai coast. The main draw is the wilderness. But such ecotourism has to be managed in a sustainable way with clear limits on development.
Sustainable ecotourism requires entrepreneurs and managers to plan, invest, regulate and work with tourist products protecting the environment, minimising social costs affecting local residents and optimising the benefits of tourism. To over-charged visitors in Tengboche who pay Rs 50 for a cup of lemon tea, none of these are visible.
One reason for the popularity of trekking is the existence of porters, who are responsible for a kind of 'democratisation' of access to the mountain region. Yet, the exploitation of porters is just one example of mismanagement (see Nepali Times, # 165). On the second day of the slow walk to Namche Bazar, resting every ten minutes, there was a porter on the uphill with five modern backpacks in the doko on his back. He was wearing slippers and at the rest stop, he asked foreigners the kind of questions children ask on the trail: "Do you have a pen? Do you have chocolate?" Looking at him again, it was clear, the porter was indeed a child. A child carrying the load of five trekkers on his back. The responsibility to prevent such abuse rests squarely with the government department managing the park.
But this once well-managed park appears to be in disarray. Trekkers don't mind paying the Rs 1,000 as park fee, but they want to see proof that the money is being put to good use. May be the department is active in conservation work, but if that is the case, then its communications strategy is not working. The visitor's centre at the park headquarters in Namche has now become part of an army base. There is no park staff in sight, and the soldier in the exhibition room points the barrel of his SLR at visitors while frisking their bags. There is barbed wire, sandbag bunkers and trenches all around. If trekking in the area is safe, visitors need to be given the impression that it is safe.
There used to be strict rules in Sagarmatha about plastic, kerosene use and disposal of garbage. None of these seem to be enforced. There are many yak trains going up the mountains, but none coming down with any waste. Behind a row of tea shops along the trail, concealed on a slope is a pile of cans, bottles and plastic. Park regulations strictly ban the use of firewood, but in seven different lodges in the park and the buffer zone during the trek, the only one we found that didn't use firewood for cooking or heating water was in Namche.
Most protected areas in the world do not have enough financial support, but Sagarmatha does. Just this season, 45 teams are climbing Khumbu's peaks, including Mt Everest, Makalu, Ama Dablam, Lhotse and Nuptse. The climbing fees alone bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars. Park fees from the 20,000 visitors alone bring in Rs 20 million a year. Where is this money going? One park official has said that 80 percent of the national park's budget goes to pay the army for security (Nepali Times, #164). If that is true, then Nepal's tourism is subsidising the security apparatus.
Despite all this, and almost by default, trekking actually benefits the local people. The Khumbu economy is vibrant. But without clear limits to growth, tourism will impact on nature. Good management of the national park should be able to encourage broad sharing of the benefits of tourism and avoid cases of human rights abuses. In the absence of government, and its role seemingly restricted to security, the park is already managed by private tour operators and local communities. In that sense, Sagarmatha is already a \'privately-run\' park.
There is a role, indeed a responsibility, for the government to enforce park regulations again, promote and manage local partnerships. The alternative is an unsustainable free-for-all that will endanger one of the world's most fragile and beautiful regions.
Luis Paulo M Ferraz is a Brazilian geographer currently living in Kathmandu Valley.