Touring in Nepal: The Effects of Tourism on Nepal and its Sustainability

It was not until the nineteen-fifties that Nepal opened its borders to foreigners (Ortner, 30). Following this opening up of Nepal’s borders, one of the largest sources of income in the country has been tourism and adventure travel. Although many of Nepal’s Sherpa people had left for India for work, and had began porter work for mountaineering expeditions prior to this (Ortner, 30), it is fascinating to look at the effects that tourism and adventure travel (which are used interchangeably throughout this paper) have had on the economy of Nepal, especially as there has been more and more travel to Nepal in recent decades. This is vital for understanding and answering whether or not tourism is a sustainable source of income for the country of Nepal.

Prior to the increase of tourism as a source of economic income, Nepal’s economy was mainly focused on agriculture. This is not to say that there is no longer any focus on agriculture, but for many, and specifically for the Sherpa people of the Khumbu valley, as recently as 1985, almost three fourths of the families receive some income from tourism (Stevens, 414). This huge effect on the income of Sherpa families is recent though, within at least fifty years, as tourism to Nepal has increased in popularity. In fact, in the early 1950s, over ninety percent of labor in Nepal was focused on agriculture as a means of income (Consing, 505). This would indicate that a tourist industry in Nepal is a relatively new thing for the country, as adventure travel and mountaineering have likely become more accessible forms of leisure for many people in the world.

How exactly did tourism change Nepal? What is immediately seen is that it began to impact a portion of the population. Nepal reportedly has between ten and twelve ethnic groups within the country (Consing, 505). Of all these groups, the Sherpa people have probably been the most effected by tourism to Nepal. The reason for this is where Sherpas live, mainly in the region surrounding the Everest massif (Ortner, 12). It is because they live in the area surrounding Mount Everest that Sherpas have undoubtedly experienced so much economic gain from tourism and adventure travel. High-altitude mountaineering has been a boon to the people of Nepal, allowing money to be made off of a lot of travel to the region.

As mentioned before, Sherpas had been employed for high-altitude mountaineering before Nepal opened its borders and more international travelers were coming to the country. Perhaps because Sherpas were doing porter work for high-altitude mountaineering expeditions as early as 1907, and because they had been praised for their excellent work (Ortner, 30), the reputation for Nepalese Sherpas as excellent help during mountaineering was established. This would pave the way when climbing began to change from mostly government funded expeditions to a more tourist based form of climbing.

In 1964, the last unclimbed 8,000-meter peak, Shishapangma, was climbed (Isserman & Weaver, 377). This could arguably be the end of the Golden Age of Mountaineering, and the ushering in of more adventure travel and tourism based mountaineering. During this time, the popularity of mountaineering began to bring more attention to Nepal, and slowly bring in more tourists (Isserman & Weaver, 381). This would likely be the beginning of a new industry in Nepal focused on tourism and travel to the country. In fact, from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, the sheer number of tourists in Nepal grew exponentially. At the beginning of the 1960s, only between five thousand and six thousand tourists were visiting Nepal each year, but by the beginning of the 1970s, almost ninety thousand people were visiting the country (Isserman & Weaver, 381). This rise in Nepal’s popularity as a tourist destination is important in order to understand just how the tourist industry began to shape Nepal, since adventure travel and mountaineering were becoming such a popular pastime.

Along with popularity driven by the excitement of the recent Golden Age of Himalayan mountaineering, foreign trekking companies and promotions for visiting Nepal helped bring in tourists. In 1965, Jimmy Roberts guided three customers in the Solu Khumbu for an adventure hike, which began a string of guide services that began to spring up in Nepal (Isserman & Weaver, 381). There was also a rise in promotional literature, like the Lonely Planet series, that became guides to places like Nepal (Isserman & Weaver, 382). This increase in guided tours and promotional literature that began in the second century only increased the popularity of Nepal and put even more life into the tourist industry in Nepal.

Finally, there is evidence of a third factor that influenced Nepal’s tourist industry, and that was the change in climbing culture. With the 1960s came the rise of counterculture, and this hippie subculture began to take a hold in younger mountaineers and visitors to Nepal interested in South Asian religions (Isserman & Weaver, 382-383). People visiting Nepal for hiking and mountaineering were seeking a bond with the natural world, and the spiritualism they hoped to find in Nepal meant that more people would begin travelling to Nepal (Isserman & Weaver, 384). Though this subculture may not be as prevalent today, the rise it brought to tourism in Nepal is significant, and there is probably some remaining interest in a connection between spirituality and the mountains that brings people to Nepal today. All in all, though, a growing interest in mountaineering during the Golden Age, promotional literature and increased guiding services, and a new mountaineering subculture helped to bring an increase of tourism to Nepal that is still around to this day, and that has had quite an effect on the country, especially in high elevations and the Sherpa peoples of Nepal.

The first, and perhaps greatest, effect tourism has had on Nepal is the rise in businesses and services provided by the people of Nepal for tourists visiting the country. Sherpas, for example, did not own or operate any tourist based business until the end of the 1960s, but by roughly the middle of the 1980s, “15 percent of all households operated family inns or shops (Stevens, 415).” In less than twenty years, a huge number of Sherpa families began to take advantage of the influx of tourism in their country. A lot of these businesses operated like gift shops and grocery stores, where tourists could buy souvenirs and food while in the country, and others would rent out or sell needed mountaineering equipment that was not brought to the country (Stevens, 415). Rather than having to bring in food and equipment, people now have the option of buying much of that in country, making travel easier and more hassle-free. Also, this would bring more money into the hands of local people, as they are providing goods and services themselves that are needed in adventure travel, allowing for more income to Sherpa families.

Still, there is a hindrance to Sherpa families who run businesses in Nepal for tourists. The problem that arises is the seasonality of tourism. This is especially true in the Khumbu region near Mount Everest, as summers mean tourists leave and people have to find another means of subsistence (Zurick, 616). Likely, they would return to agriculture because, as already noted, much of Nepal’s economy is agriculturally based. What this may mean is that a lot of people in Nepal, and especially in regards to the Sherpa people, is that being bi-vocational is a common circumstance for many, who are involved in the tourist business. In fact, farming and agriculture are still such a common practice that, “No family has yet abandoned the cultivation of its land to rely solely on earnings from tourism (Stevens, 419).” While tourism has become important to Nepal’s economy, it has not yet come to replace what is perhaps the most important industry in Nepal, agriculture, which still has its role throughout the country.

Lodging and hotels have become some of the most fundamental sources of income from tourism that is seen for many local people in Nepal. In the region closest to the base of Mount Everest, eighty-three lodges were operating alone (Stevens, 415). Of course it should not be surprising that lodging for tourists has risen along with tourism, even individuals who do not travel with guide services need overnight places to stay (Zurick, 612). Hotels have opened up as a useful form of income for the people of Nepal.

Hotels also indicate accommodation offered by the Nepalese, especially aiming at Western tourists who may be looking for a sense of familiarity in a different culture. Offers of a hot shower by hotels can be a useful technique to lure in tourists as a form of income, demonstrating the efforts to almost pander to Western tourists looking for amenities that would be found at a hotel if travelling through the United States or Europe (Duncanson, 10). Similarly, the kind of food offered at hotels also is a form of accommodation that people in Nepal have practiced to make money, as something like pizza can even be found in some hotels (Duncanson, 10). This familiarity that is offered by some hotels in Nepal would be an effective business tool designed to attract more customers in order to generate more income. In fact, a popular lodge can make up to ten thousand U.S. dollars in a single year, demonstrating the effectiveness of this accommodation (Stevens, 416).

With the increase of tourism, and especially the construction of hotels and lodging as a form of income, there have been two notable changes in Nepal. One of these changes comes in the role of women in some areas. In the Sherpa community, many lodges are actually run by women (Stevens, 416). This surely has come because of the number of Sherpa men that have been employed as more hands on help in mountaineering. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see how tourism has brought some change to gender roles within an ethnic group. According to Sherry Ortner, traditionally men have owned most property and did most trading (Ortner, 232). With the rise of tourism though, it appears that women have found new opportunities through the management of hotels. Of course women were always considered capable to manage the household while the husband was away, and perhaps the hotel could be seen as an extension of the household (Ortner, 232-233). Still, the fact that women have found a way to be involved in the economy and work outside the home is of great significance.

The second notable change caused by tourism in Nepal is the socio-economic movement that has become more possible since the rise in tourism. Hotels have been one specific area where this has become possible. For many villages, there has been a new power relationship created by hotels, where the owners become some of the most important employers for other villagers (Lim, 727). The hotel owner then has economic power as a source of income for the labor force of the village and also as a source of loans for those who need them (Lim, 728). To own and operate a hotel then, is a unique opportunity for someone in Nepal to climb the socio-economic ladder. This would be significant in a society that has largely been based on subsistence agriculture that likely would have little opportunity for change in socio-economic status (Consing, 506).

Similarly, climbing work for Sherpas has also become a means of climbing the socio-economic ladder. For many Sherpas, climbing presented an opportunity to advance from a porter to the head Sherpa on an expedition (Ortner, 75). Climbing also gave Sherpas the opportunity to provide for themselves and keep them from working for other families in their villages (Ortner, 73). Ortner explains that there are three categories of people in Sherpa society: “big people,” “small people,” and a group in between those two (Ortner, 65). Working as a porter and having the opportunity to move up within expeditions opened up more opportunity for socio-economic movement, as a “small” person may no longer be contained to that status.

Tourism’s effects on the country of Nepal are vast. Important changes caused by tourism are the new methods of income that have arisen as a response to the rise in tourists visiting Nepal, and the greater ability for socio-economic movement with new opportunities. New businesses that provide important goods like food, equipment, and lodging have become a source of seasonal income, that are influenced by the tourist population that travels in the country. With new economic opportunities came new opportunities for personal benefits. Hotel owners and Sherpas found opportunity to rise socio-economically and escape from a lower standard of living.

But is an economy based on tourism sustainable? Places like the Khumbu valley have become increasingly dependent on tourism for their local income that an end to this industry could become catastrophic. Most Sherpa families have income from tourism, and many households have several family members that are employed in trekking as guides and sirdars, or group leaders (Stevens, 414). Along with this direct impact on families in Nepal, tourism is actually the largest form of foreign income in Nepal (Price, 89). Much of Nepal’s economy is then closely linked with tourism. But what would happen if the tourist industry crashed in Nepal, or what would cause the downfall of the tourist industry?

One important factor in tourism and especially the adventure travel that we see in Nepal today is the environment. If the environmental quality of an area reaches a specific low point, it could become an unviable option, as something with no desire and appeal to tourists (Johnston and Tyrell, 17). The environment of Nepal is vital to the continuation of the tourist industry then. This becomes a concern when the truths of the economic impacts that adventure travel and mountaineering have had on Nepal. The Annapurna region of Nepal receives over half of the country’s tourists, and at the peak months of tourism, the total population of the region can reach almost two hundred thousand people (Duncanson, 11-12). In the Khumbu valley, one of the greatest environmental concerns is wood use by tourists which has resulted in a huge environmental threat to Sagarmatha National Park (Stevens, 420).

In order to maintain an environment that is friendly towards tourism, the government of Nepal has had to step in. In the Annapurna area, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project was created as a response to environmental concerns by focusing on “alternative energy sources, economic development, and environmental protection (Duncanson, 11-12).” Similarly, in Sagarmatha National Park, wood use has been limited by national park authorities to limit the felling of trees (Stevens, 420-421). It is clear that the there are efforts in place in Nepal to help protect the environment, which is vital to continued tourism to the country. Tourism itself may cause environmental problems, as seen already in the Annapurna region and in Sagarmatha National Park. On the other hand, it has been suggested that tourism can also be beneficial for the environment, as it can bring attention to environmental concerns and helps to promote the protection of natural areas (Zurick, 619).

This tradeoff between damage and benefit to a tourist destination is clearly seen in the example of the Khumbu valley below Mount Everest. Trekking has caused a lot of environmental damage to the region, especially caused by pollution and rapid deterioration of popular sites in the valley (Karan & Mather, 94). There is also the well-known pollution of Mount Everest itself in this area as well, caused by a lot of pollution and littering. On the other hand, though, Sagarmatha National Park was established in 1976 in order to protect the area, and programs in the park have been established that focus on reforestation and protection against poachers and “illegal firewood collectors (Karan & Mather, 95).” Clearly, there is a give and take within tourism to Nepal, while there have been some negative impacts on the environment, it has also ushered in the programs and efforts to protect the environment that are much needed. Government policies are of course needed to ensure that the environment is protected in popular tourist destinations are insured. The King Mahendra Trust projects that Nepal has implemented are steps toward that, and adopting policies to continue land protection will meet these needs (Zurick, 622). But these protections must do more than just protect the scenic locations of Nepal, but the whole environment if sustainable tourist development is to be long-term (Zurick, 623).

Another issue that is related to tourist activity and environmental concerns is the capability of travel within Nepal. One of the greatest challenges to tourist travel in Nepal is transportation, as the internal road systems are still very poor (Duncanson, 11). This has, in part, led to the huge concentration of tourists to just a few locations, like the Annapurna region (It was stated earlier that this region receives more than half of Nepal’s tourists each year). This issue could be one of the reasons that tourists are overpopulating and causing environmental damage to such regions. If Nepal hopes to have a sustainable tourist economy, there must be an improvement in transportation, as it has been suggested that too much traffic in one area can cause a loss of authenticity, which is a key aspect of the adventure travelling into Nepal (Zurick, 614). If Nepal hopes to maintain its authenticity, then a focus on the reconstruction of transportation is needed.

Nepal’s tourist industry is hugely important to the country’s economy. It has ben shown to be beneficial for many local people, and especially the people of popular tourist destinations like the Sherpa peoples of the Khumbu Valley. But if Nepal hopes to keep tourism as a sustainable economy for the long-term, then there are at least two important factors that need to be addressed. The environmental concerns are huge, if the environment is negatively impacted enough, it could have an impact on tourism, as fewer people travel to a country that is not environmentally stable. Along with that, Nepal must find a way to maintain authenticity by opening up more areas for tourism through transportation improvements. These two factors are important to maintaining outside interest in Nepal as a tourist destination and location for adventure travel.







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