Saturday Features

The Annapurna rush

  • The footfall at the ABC is estimated to hit record high 50,000 tourists next year. But is it ready, or capable, of entertaining such numbers?
- SANGAM PRASAIN

Nov 25, 2017-Kaski, Cold wind brushed through my hair. Lalupate were blooming all around. Even after a light snowfall and a drizzle, oranges continued to hang onto the trees. As we climbed up, the Modi River ambled down below like humming bees. Sloping away from the road were terraced paddy fields and we passed by mules with bells dangling from their necks. We—a group of five journalists and a guide—were trekking to Annapurna Base camp (ABC). Due to time constraints, we began our trek from Siwai, which can now be reached by vehicle. A few hours into the trek, the trail got steeper and we passed by our first group of trekkers, who greeted us with a series of “Namaste” as they walked past us.

By the time we reached Chhomrang, our stop for the night, we had passed through scores of trekkers who seemed tired—but thrilled— to have traversed through one of the best trekking routes in the world.

When we reached our hotel, we were disappointed to find that seven people were crammed into a tiny room.  It cost us only Rs 180 per head, but had there been better services, we would have been willing to pay more. There was little room to complain, at least there were beds for us; and we had been warned beforehand.

“ABC is the cheapest trekking destination,” Surya Thapaliya, manager at the Nepal Tourism Board in Pokhara had told us before starting the trek. “The hoteliers in the region are not inclined to upgrade. They will need proper training in order to understand that by upgrading their services, they can reap maximum benefits.”

At the hotel, we met with Netra Sharma, an in-charge at Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) check post in Chhomrong. He said that as of November 10, 26000 foreigners were issued the permit to trek to ABC. In addition, since mid-August, from when ACAP began registering Nepali tourists as well, 1,611 domestic tourists have flocked to route. The same time last year, it welcomed 19,000 foreign trekkers.

Of the thousands of tourists that flock to the picturesque route, it is not that everyone that comes to the ABC is looking for cheap accommodations. Trekkers, both foreign and Nepalis, are willing to spend more, but an ill-developed business strategy—other than poor services to the visitors—has meant that the benefit of tourism has not helped the people along the trail prosper.

This year, keeping in mind the rising flow of tourist, ACAP amended its guidelines to allow investors to construct new lodges in the area. But despite that, tourist entrepreneurs have not been able to capitalise on the opportunity.

The obvious issue with the trekking route is that it falls under a protected area, which prevents hotels from having more than seven rooms. But, as the number of tourist arriving in the route is expected to reach 50,000 next year, it might be high time to reconsider the regulations that govern the protected area. Allowing the establishment of larger hotels and resorts in designated areas would mean the revitalisation of the economic life of ABC trekking route, initiating a ripple effect that would percolate down to the individual level.

In contrast, in the Everest Base Camp (EBC) trekking route, a room with proper basic facilities can cost 100 dollars a night. As a result, the per capita income of the Everest region is the highest in the country.

Since tourists have spilled over the housing capacity of the lodges in the trekking route, many do not have the choice but to spend the night in make-shift tents and the dining area of the hotels. As a result, there is an acute lack of bathroom facilities–in the morning we saw a few minor disputes between people rushing to use the bathroom, but we heard tales of brawls in the past that quickly escalated to near-violent encounters as well.

On the flip side, for somebody willing to adjust to cold nights, crammed rooms and a lack of proper facilities, ABC is a great destination. On our third day, we met a Korean man, Joe Hyun Kwon, who was bent on completing the trek with Rs 6,000. He said that he has been sleeping in kitchens. “It’s warmer in the kitchen than in the beds,” he told us when we asked him about his shoe-string trip. Many like him are willing to put themselves through discomfort during the night in order to soak in the splendors of the day.

Being at the Base Camp is a wonderful, almost surreal experience that one can scarcely describe in words.  As the sun gently falls beyond the horizon, the Annapurna range turns pink then red. On the opposite side of the Annapurnas, the Machhapuchhre dances in the evening hues as well. The flock of people gathered there start to gush and fawn spontaneously.

This route attracts thousands of people from across the world for a reason, and it will continue to do so till the mountains, and the human yearning for adventure and wonder, remain. The question now is how the gift can be truly capitalised on, while keeping in mind the limitations and the capacity of the region along the trail to absorb the human footprint. Finding that fine balance will determine if the Annapurna Base Camp region flourishes because of the growing footfall, or if it will be crushed by the very burden.

Photos: Sangam Prasain

Published: 25-11-2017 09:08

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