Fighting poverty in Nepal's Year of Tourism

Posted: 28 November 2010

Author: Katy Elliott

2011 has been designated as the Year of Tourism for Nepal with the aim of attracting more travellers to boost the country’s flagging economy and to alleviate poverty.

Nepal is one of the poorest nations in Asia, so tourism is an important source of income especially for unskilled and semi-skilled workers in remote mountain districts where jobs are scarce. It already indirectly employs 548,000 Nepalis. The industry needs to grow if it is to create jobs for the 42 per cent of Nepalis who are unemployed.

In peak season thousands trek to view Mt Everest, putting huge pressure on this delicate eco zone. Photo © Katy Elliott

But if its tourism assets are to benefit future generations and drive socially equitable economic growth, poverty alleviation and conservation, then sustainable best practices must be implemented. And only a handful of responsible companies assure that wealth is distributed throughout the communities and that environmental conservation comes before profits.

SNV Nepal (in partnership with the United Nations Environment Programme, Nepal Tourism Board and with EC support) is working with a range of operators to help them grow in a responsible way. It is providing marketing support to the companies while increasing the awareness of international tour operators and consumers.

Few inhabited places on earth are as inaccessible as Humla, the highest and most northerly district in Nepal. Bordering Tibet and 440km NW of Kathmandu this environmentally fragile Himalayan region can only be accessed by days of walking, by light aircraft or helicopter.

Snow blocks it off for up to four months each year, the monsoon brings weeks of destructive summer rain and the spring is prone to flooding.

The UN ranks it as one of the world’s poorest – and hungriest – regions. Electricity, communications, safe water supply, roads, education and healthcare are severely lacking. People survive from day to day in villages up to 5000m overlooking steep terraced strips, though only 2 per cent of the land is cultivable. Most households produce enough food to last three to five months and are dependent on UN World Food Programme relief.

Many are illiterate and malnourished with a life expectancy of just 53. One in three children will not survive until their fifth birthday.

Yet Humla is also an area of great beauty whose remoteness and isolation appeal to intrepid adventurers. Tourism has potential to help impoverished communities but only if developed in a responsible way which allows the benefits to be spread across complex communities where social, caste and gender prejudices are rife.

A group of pioneers from Humla has launched Responsible Treks, which will take adventurers to unexplored, remote pockets of Nepal including Humla, Karnali, Mt Kailash, Limi valley, Dolpo, Rara and Saipal. Its core policy is to support and improve the livelihoods of the poor.

“Our pro-poor tourism policy means we offer encouragement, involvement and empowerment as a means to make tourism work for the poor, expanding their opportunities and improving their quality of life in a continued and sustainable manner,” says managing director Chhewang N. Lama.

Honey hunters

Ghalegaun Village Resort has been involved in community-based ecotourism for eight years, taking five groups a year to remote Gurung villages to visit traditional honey hunters, thereby bringing tourist dollars to the hunters and communities. The protection of the endangered honeybee is vital if this type of income generation is to continue and their decline would have devastating consequences for the native, high-altitude plants whose reproduction is dependent upon them.

Since taking part in the SNV programme the resort has provided training in sustainable practices, the environment and tourism for 15 honey hunters, teaching them about the need to collect only from about 40% of hives indentified.

Another example of responsible practice is 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking (run by sisters Lucky, Dicky and Nicky Chhetri), which has made a huge contribution to women’s equality and education, enabling women from poor, mountainous regions to become confident and self-sufficient through guiding and portering.

Over the last 16 years 600 women have attended their trekking guide training. Yet it wasn’t until 3 Sisters took part in the scheme that the company learned how to market such assets and share views with other members of the growing “responsible travel” community outside Nepal.

“We were doing all these 'responsible' things but we had no idea they had a business value and that we could promote them,” says Lucky Chhetri. “The marketing programme gave us a sense of business. As a result client numbers are up by 10 per cent.”

Nepal - Himalayan vista
Nepal - Himalayan vista.

Examples of sustainable ‘best practice’ within Nepal’s tourism community remain the exception rather than the rule. Poor Nepalis often have no choice but to exploit the natural resources – and workers - unsustainably, thinking of little but the survival of their own business.

Amazing Tours managing director Gobinda Bhatta admits that until the company took part in the training, it was focusing solely on profits “without caring and probably unknowingly hurting the environment, local communities and culture”.

Sustainable profits

Bhatta believed transforming his company into a responsible business would spell certain collapse. Now the company’s profits have doubled because running costs have been cut and because clients are willing to pay more, especially when they see that local communities are benefiting.

“Going sustainable doesn’t mean you drain your resources, but that you make use of your resources in smarter ways and this increases your profit margin,” says Bhatta. “I hadn’t realized there was such a huge market of tourists willing to buy products and travel with sustainable companies.”

Now the agency is buying its (organic) vegetables locally, only using Nepali owned hotels and restaurants in Kathmandu and driving down energy consumption to a minimum. It has trained its guides in environmental awareness, is encouraging high standards of responsibility among its clients and local business partners and is investing in local community projects.

“The scheme taught us to be responsible because we should give to the community, but in fact we are responsible because it is good for business. It ensures our sustainability.”

At nearly 4000m Everest Resort has also seen its visitor numbers rise (by 20 per cent to 800 a year) following its shift to responsible practice and better marketing.

Managers Ang and Dorjee Lami Sherpa are only hiring local staff and sourcing vegetables and fruit locally as well as minimizing water and power usage within the hotel. By collecting snow melt and rainwater they have cut 60-70 per cent off the monthly water bill. They are furnishing the rooms traditionally and using local raw materials, fair trade products and local craftsmen. “We have learned the importance of respecting others and if possible of creating income for others too,” says Dorjee.

The Last Resort, which boasts one of the world’s highest bungy bridge jumps, has committed to responsible practice in the belief that it is vital for the future health of its business and for that of the community. “When people ask why we are more expensive, we explain about our community development programme and that staff are paid legal wages and get overtime,” says sales and marketing manager Bhuwan Sharma.

“Our main competitor is cheaper, but 90 per cent of our clients come back precisely because of these responsible practices. The whole community is developing in line with our resort.”

Nepal is still suffering the aftermath of prolonged political upheaval and the cottage businesses that constitute the tourism industry lack marketing nous, international contacts or knowledge of Western tastes. They lack the resources to invest in new technologies and the capacity to implement truly sustainable management practices.

Many tourists are put off from visiting Nepal because they have to rough it. They know food and accommodation is unimaginative and basic and electricity and hot water is scarce. What hotels lack in basic comfort they rarely make up for in rustic charm. Pink and grey concrete pillars and cheap plastic furniture are de rigueur.

Nepal - Famous Farm
Nepal - Famous Farm.

The Famous Farm at Nuwakot, run by Himalayan Encounters, is a rare breed that is catering for tourists’ tastes and needs. The derelict buildings on a terraced hillside overlooking an ancient fortress have been painstakingly restored from rot and collapse into a charming boutique hotel. It is furnished with shabby-chic antiques and guests enjoy fresh organic vegetables from the surrounding gardens.

More clients means more work for local people and economic growth for the region. It’s a neat solution, but rare in Nepal.

The company is installing solar water heating systems, biogas toilets, hiring local guides, training local farmers in organic farming and has a pro women recruitment policy. It is constructing a school for the hearing and speech impaired.

“If we are more environmentally conscious then we are conserving the assets on which the company is based. If we can make the local people feel part of the changes and improvements then they will be happier and more hospitable to tourists and us,” said Abhinaya Shrestha, product manager.

“Unless you talk about the good things you do people won’t know about it. We are learning how to promote our responsible practices,” says Shrestha, adding that working with local communities can be tough: “People doubt you and think your sole motive is profit making and are non cooperative. With time it changes, but it’s difficult.”

The Last Resort is one of several companies looking to set up an alliance with others and has already given out guidelines for developing responsible travel practices. “The purpose is to monitor each other in terms of how responsible we are being. Let’s see if we can help each other with being more responsible.”

Katy Elliott is a journalist and editor editor specialising in overseas development. She has spent the last two years living and working in Nepal with her family.