‘Unnecessary rescues’ soar in Nepal on profits from insurance payouts

- AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, LUKLA (Nepal)

Jun 29, 2018-

Tourists hiking in Nepal’s Himalayan mountains are being pressured into costly helicopter evacuations at the first sight of trouble by guides linked to powerful brokers who are making a fortune on “unnecessary rescues”, industry insiders say.

Dodgy operators are scamming tens of thousands of dollars from insurance companies by making multiple claims for a single chopper ride or pushing trekkers to accept airlifts for minor illnesses, an investigation by AFP has revealed.

In other cases, trekking guides, promised commission if they get tourists to return by chopper, are offering helicopter rides to tired hikers as a quick way home, but billing them as rescues to insurance companies.

The practice is so rampant helicopter pilots are reporting “rescuing” tourists who appear in perfectly fine health.

“It’s a racket that’s tantamount to fraud, and it’s happening on a large scale throughout Nepal,” said Jonathan Bancroft of UK-based Traveller Assist, which carries out medical evacuations in Nepal on behalf of global travel insurance companies.

Trekking outfits stand to make more in kickbacks from evacuating a hiker by helicopter than the cost of the trek itself, contributing to an alarming rise in rescues from Nepal’s biggest tourist attraction: the fabled Himalayas.

Traveller Assist said 2017 was the most expensive year on record for travel insurance companies covering tourists in Nepal due to a startling number of helicopter rescues—though this year is on track to beat it. There is no centralised dispatch centre for helicopter flights in Nepal making it difficult to know precisely how many evacuations are carried out.

But over the past six years the skies of the Everest region have turned into a helicopter highway, with a six-fold increase in the number of choppers in the air, each logging over 1,000 flying hours per year, according to industry data.

“We used to see maybe one helicopter in two or three days. Now we are seeing 10 or so in a day,” said Thanishwar Bhandari, who works as a small clinic in the Everest region. Meanwhile, one foreign pilot, who requested anonymity, said he rescued trekkers on a near daily basis in April and May this year, peak trekking season.

“I think I took three people the whole season who appeared genuinely ill,” he told AFP. Australian trekker Jessica Reeves was urged by her guide to be evacuated by helicopter from near Everest base camp in October 2017 when she complained of a common cold.

“He kept telling me to get a helicopter,” Reeves told AFP. “They said if I keep going it would be really risky so it was better to leave now instead of risking it.”

Reeves said nine or 10 hikers in her group ended up returning to Kathmandu on three helicopters but were instructed to say they were alone on the flight back.

She alleged the company, Himalayan Social Journey, billed each of the tourists’ insurance providers for the whole flight—pocketing around $35,000 in the process.

“They told us all to lie to the insurance company and say there was only one person on the helicopter when there were three or four of us on each,” she said. Reeves’ insurance claim was in any case rejected because her policy had expired.

The company owner, Ram Sapkota, denied that the insurance companies were each billed for the full flight.

“(They) claimed insurance on a sharing basis and we received money from (the) insurance,” he said, dismissing allegations as “fake”.

Sapkota blamed the rise in helicopter rescues from the Himalayas on lazy hikers and hypochondriacs. “When one client gets sick, then the group they say, ‘I feel unsafe and just want to go’,” he said.

Extensive interviews by AFP with players at every stage of the commission chain reveals that guides, trekking operators, lodge owners and charter companies are acting as brokers, playing helicopter companies off against each other to secure a cut of the rescue fees.

Published: 29-06-2018 08:36

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