|SHUTDOWN: A sight that may be common in Thamel during the autumn tourist season if the Maoist threat to intensify street agitation from September materialises.|
Tourism bookings for the autumn season have never been healthier. Airlines and hotels are booked solid till November. Trekking agencies report record reservations.
Yet, hotel and airline owners, trekking agents and those employed in the tourism industry are downcast. They see a dark cloud behind the silver lining because of threats from Maoist unions as well as the possibility of bandas smack at the start of the tourist season in September.
The Trekking Agents Association of Nepal (TAAN) has been trying to sort out demands laid down by a Maoist trade union before the season starts. "We are ready to do everything for the welfare of employees, but we are running out of time," explains TAAN president Narendra BC.
After two months of talks, there has still been no agreement on two of the 13 demands of the Maoists: a Rs 600 increase in porter wages, better facilities, and permanent status to those working more than 240 days in a year.
TAAN says it has nothing against these demands but can't fulfil them till the next season since the tariffs have been set. A local tourism entrepreneur says the Maoist demands are unrealistic, and will kill the industry, and the porters will lose even the jobs they have.
The government fixed the minimum wages of porters two years ago at Rs 350 per day for those going above 3,500m altitude and Rs 250 for those below that. But most of the porters who work for established companies make more than Rs 500 excluding tips. It is usually the porters associated with illegal unregistered companies who get exploited, and TAAN says it is trying to control these fly-by-nights.
But Maoist unions are threatening porters, and last week even sent back some porters who were not members of their union from Lukla. Enforcing the union's demands on permanent staffing and benefits mean established trekking agencies can only hire half the number of porters they currently employ, says one trekking agent.
With the restoration of peace and positive foreign travel advisories, there was a lot of hope. But there is despondency again . Said one travel agent: "We have invested so much promoting this season, we will be ruined if there are strikes and cancellations."
Which means the Nepalis who need these jobs the most won't have any.