Who should tourism benefit in Nepal?

  • Nepali tourism cannot continue to rely on old policymaking. It needs to take local communities into account.
- Amish Raj Mulmi

May 31, 2019-

A few weeks ago, I argued for the removal of restricted area permits that costs a minimum of $500 for non-Nepalis to visit upper Mustang. My contention was based on a few observations during my travels to the region: that since the construction of the Beni-Jomsom-Kora La road was in full swing, it was unreasonable for the permit to continue from a security and even environmental perspective since the entire region would soon be open to commercial traffic; and that the revenue from the permit was promised to be shared with local residents, but very little has been invested into the tourism infrastructure in a region that could contend for world heritage status.

There were many who thought removing the permit would desecrate a fragile ecological landscape under the trampling of tourists’ boots by turning it into another Khumbu, while some argued a rush of tourists into the region would result in the loss of upper Mustang’s art and heritage, either through commercialisation or through the theft of artworks.

The validity of these points is unquestionable. Any tourist spot—from the great Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru, which may see an international airport very soon, to the three Durbar Squares in the Valley—has borne the impact of increased human traffic and the mass consumerism that comes with it. But to assume that a region remains unchanged because of travel restrictions is flawed logic. Upper Mustang is not a medieval ‘lost Tibetan kingdom’ stuck in time. It has always been a vibrant region that was central to the Himalayan salt trade and continues to evolve in the modern day despite the restrictions on travel. To consider it as a unique specimen from the past is to view it from a romanticised plane that does not take into account the local people’s decision-making capabilities and what they can achieve despite being excluded from the state’s modern trajectories of bikas.

Two weeks after I returned from Lo Manthang, I picked up Manjushree Thapa’s Mustang Bhot in Fragments, which presents vignettes of her travels in the region in the early 1990s. She writes about a visit by then king Birendra to Lo Manthang, when the locals prepared a bintipatra, petition, for the king. The locals asked for three things: ‘a motorable road from Pokhara to Mustang, a public electrical scheme in Lo Manthang, and the end of the policy of restriction in upper Mustang.’

The irony is, the king had been presented a similar petition five years previously. A road and a working solar power plant finally came to Lo Manthang in the middle of this decade. You’d have to wait for 30 years for the first signs of bikas to come to Lo if you were a 30-year-old Loba, an upper Mustang resident, petitioning the king in 1990.

That tourism brings with it capitalist methods of extraction, environmental damage, and loss of heritage is undoubted. The debate remains the same: should we favour development or growth? The short-term solution is to go for quick money-making schemes that extract resources, whether in the form of land grabbing, environmental damage and pollution, and increasing income inequalities. The more difficult solution is to seek a balance wherein the maximum benefits of tourism reach local residents, who then deploy the best methods—using traditional knowledge systems as much as possible—to preserve their region and allow it to evolve.

It is easier said than done, especially with the everyday difficulties that come with policymaking and implementation. For instance, it is unlikely that all of Nepal can replicate Bhutan’s high-value, low-volume model, but it is a model that can be implemented in select regions with means other than centralised restrictions. With the emergence of provincial and local governments, decision-making in accordance with local wishes should on paper be more participatory than previously. This will require tourism policies to be more aware of ground realities than is at present; at the moment, the focus seems primarily on delivering numbers from abroad, despite 56.7 percent of the Rs240 billion generated by the Nepali tourism industry coming from the spending by domestic tourists.

The semiotics around tourism in Nepal seem to forget that it is, at the end of the day, a business practice that exploits local resources—whether cultures or geographies. In Galapagos, for example, high volume tourism affects the rare wildlife the tourists come to see. But at the same time, local authorities are also fighting back with policies to limit tourist impact. Barcelona, while not restricting the number of visitors to the city, instead limits the number of beds in hotels and has frozen building new hotels in some city zones. The 3 Idiots-ification of Ladakh has now resulted in over-crowding of a fragile landscape.

When we see the traffic jams on Mount Everest or the garbage that has come to populate our tourist sites, do we blame the outsider, or do we blame the policy? Similarly, upper Mustang will see degradation—environmental and cultural—because of the Beni-Kora La highway; is it wise then to continue to levy a fee that brings no benefit to the locals who will bear the brunt of commercial traffic? Or is it better to create a new policy that will orient itself to meet local goals?

‘Growth’ through numbers cannot be the only parameter. One can argue it may be time to levy a garbage tax on all travellers (whether domestic or foreign) to some regions, as Thailand does on some of its beaches, that is dedicated to waste disposal management. Such a levy may be contentious; there is conflict between the Khumbu Pasang Lhamu municipality and the other municipalities in the Everest region over sharing of climbing royalties. Some may even argue implementing another tax will create more room for corruption, or that it will not deter locals from generating waste. But to avoid a levy because of transparency or implementation issues—which must be resolved by locals themselves—is to also shy away from possibilities of better travel practices.

A reorientation of our tourism goals also requires a rejig of existing ideas (and routes). Many travellers I met in upper Mustang decried the new road because it hindered with their idea of a quiet trek in the mountains—a justifiable point of view. However, the upper Mustang trek no longer needs to follow the traditional trekking route, which was the salt road traders took to cross the mountains. New paths can be opened up to villages, not on the traditional route; new trekking itineraries can be drawn up, with proper camping facilities, to take one away from the road. The reality of the upcoming road cannot be wished away; instead, one has to think around it.  

At the same time, there cannot be one-plan-fits-all policies. Not every place needs to be developed on the Annapurna Circuit or Everest trek models. Upper Mustang will have different needs, and local agency should guide policies, not the other way around. Land purchase should be restricted to local residents with verified antecedents, else we will see an onslaught of tourism entrepreneurs as has already occurred in the many hills around Pokhara.  

It may be that these policies do not deliver as expected; complications will surely arise—a risk that comes with policymaking. But the future has always been a leap of faith. The assumption that tourism automatically raises incomes and brings bikas is flawed. If we are to preserve our fragile regions, we have to trust local decision-making capabilities; it is they who are at the vanguard. Travellers should have to pay to get away from their humdrum lives, but if their expenditure does not benefit the region they travel to, the entire point of tourism is lost.

Mulmi tweets at @amish973

Published: 31-05-2019 09:43

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