by Michael Patrick O'Leary
A version of this article appeared in the October 2014 edition of Echelon magazine. This version only includes photographs taken by me in 1985.
All those trekking boots leave a huge environmental footprint however lightly a trekker treads.
The first hippies arrived in Kathmandu round about 1967. Numbers increased as western interest in eastern mysticism and exoticism grew in the west, in part thanks to the Beatles. A Kathmandu street south of Durbar Square called Jochen Tole became “Freak Street”. The hippies tended to spend more time interacting with the local population than traditional sightseeing tourists.
Today, the neighborhood of Thamel is still Kathmandu’s main tourist haunt, packed with guesthouses, restaurants, shops, and bookstores. Freak Street is still there in a different form and online booking sites offer 114, hotels in the area.
Tourism is a major source of income for most of the people in Kathmandu, with several hundred thousand visitors arriving annually. Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world visit Kathmandu’s religious sites such as Pashupatinath, Swayambhunath, Boudhanath and Lumbini, the supposed birthplace of the Lord Buddha.
Has Nepal benefited from tourism? The direct contribution of tourism to GDP was Nepali Rs 67bn (4.3 % of total GDP) in 2012, and is forecast to rise to Rs112bn in 2023. In 2012, tourism directly supported 553,500 jobs (3.6% of total employment). This is expected to rise to 829,000 jobs (4.2% of total employment) in 2023.
I visited Kathmandu a long time ago, in 1981. I visited again in 1985. The changes I observed during that short time were a sign of the negative effects of tourism. I will offer a little anecdotal evidence. On my 1981visit, the place seemed relaxed and safe, with little motor traffic. On my return in 1985, the traffic was much worse and there was a discomfiting edginess in the air. It was impossible to walk around the city without being hassled by young men selling drugs.
The first approach was “Want some grass?” A polite “No thank you” would raise the stakes to “Want some cocaine?” Rejection of the cocaine option would elicit an offer of heroin. It got to a point where I angrily told one pusher to leave me alone. Those may not have been my exact words. He in turn angrily told me to get out of his country.
Although Kathmandu in 1981 was no longer the hippie-haven it had been in the 1970s (events in Afghanistan and Iran had put the kibosh on cheap overland travel) there was still a residue of hippiness. By 1985, the hippie delusion had finally gone sour and declined from grass to heroin.
Nepal was a closed country until 1950. In 1956, air transportation was established and the Tribhuvan Highway, between Kathmandu and Raxaul (on the border with India) was started. I crossed from India at Sunauli, which is now a venue for violent scams. The Nepalese government set up organisations in Kathmandu in the 1950s to promote tourism. Tourists started to trickle in. Today tourism is the most important aspect of the country’s economy. From a mere 6,179 tourists in 1961-62, the number jumped to 491,504 in 1999-2000. With the end of the Maoist insurgency in 2009, there was a significant rise of 509,956 tourist arrivals. Tourist numbers have further increased since the country discarded the monarchy and became a Democratic Republic. Today, Kathmandu boasts several five-star hotels like Hyatt Regency, Hotel Yak & Yeti, the Everest Hotel, Hotel Radisson, Hotel De L’Annapurna, and the Shangri-La Hotel. Some of the five-star hotels have casinos.
Despite that, one could feel wandering in parts of the city that one was back in medieval times. Some dwellings have living accommodation upstairs and cattle on the ground floor – an integral cowshed rather than an integral garage. Butcher shops have rows of shins and hooves standing outside like shoes in a hotel waiting to be polished.
On both of my visits, I left Kathmandu to go on organised treks in the mountains. In 1981, this was a gentle stroll in the Annapurna region accompanied by a BBC crew making a Holiday programme.
The 1985 trek was more strenuous, going close to Everest Base Camp and camping at Thyangboche Monastery. We had started the trip by flying in from Kathmandu to Lukla in a Cessna light aircraft. A programme titled Most Extreme Airports, broadcast on The History Channel in 2010, rated Tenzing-Hillary Airport as the most dangerous airport in the world. On arrival, it seemed as if the plane was just flying straight into a mountain.
The return trip was worse. We arrived back at Lukla to find that the Nepalese royal family had commandeered all the planes in the country for some holiday junket. (In 2001, the heir to the throne, Prince Dipendra, killed nine members of his family, including King Birendra and Queen Aishwarya, and himself). We had to wait a few days until an army helicopter came to rescue us. To show my appreciation, I gave a bottle of duty,-free Johnny Walker to the pilot. I had not expected him to drink it as he was flying. The helicopter was zigzagging through huge walled chasms of rock. The pilot was cheerily turning around to chat and taking huge gulps of whisky.
That trek was made more strenuous because what was described as “freak weather conditions”. Heavier rains than usual had caused mountain lakes to flood and landslides had blocked the usual trails. I still have nightmares about one particular stretch. I had to inch my way along a very narrow path feeling sand dropping on my head from above and the ground crumbling under my feet into the precipitous ravine way below. I realise now that the presence of freaks like myself may have contributed to “freak weather conditions”.
Since the 1970s, 97% of all visitors to Nepal have been trekkers. Today there are more than 900 legitimate trekking companies in Kathmandu. All those trekking boots leave a huge environmental footprint however lightly a trekker treads. In theory, the government grants protection to the 13% of Nepalese land designated as National Parks. The Sagarmatha National Park, which includes Everest, suffers from pollution and deforestation directly related to the impact of tourism. Sherpas use local forests as part of their subsistence lifestyles and management of their tourist lodges. One trekking tourist in Nepal can account for five kilograms of wood a day.
Nepal has little in the way of easily-extractable natural resources. Its greatest asset is its spectacular scenery and tourism has been described as an extractive industry. In particular, Nepal has Mount Everest, also known in Nepal as Sagarmatha and in Tibet as Chomolungma. At 8,84,8 meters above sea level, it is Earth’s highest mountain.
Tourism brought changes to the Everest region in particular, making it one of the wealthiest areas in Nepal. In 2012, Mount Everest expeditions contributed over 911 million rupees to Nepal’s economy. Many Sherpas have enjoyed prosperity through tourism-related employment with jobs for trekking agents, tour operators, sirdars (trekking field managers) high altitude climbers, porters and cooks.
Mount Everest itself is getting crowded and littered with abandoned tents, sleeping bags, oxygen cylinders, coffee makers and gear to watch movies inside tents – even the corpses of climbers who never made it down add to the refuse. All trekkers need a government permit but there are currently no limits or quotas on permits issued by the government of Nepal to climb Everest. In the spring of 2012, thirty permits were issued for foreign Mount Everest expedition teams comprising 325 climbers, 358 high-altitude climbing Sherpas and 230 kitchen staff. Nepalese tourism authorities said recently that climbers must bring down 18 pounds of trash when they descend.
Tourism has undoubtedly enabled many Nepalese to improve their lives. Some research has suggested that families who are involved in tourism are likely to achieve more in education. Tourism-related funds have contributed towards schools being built in the area by NGOs such as the Himalayan Trust. In many villages, tourism has helped improve water supply, but this can lead to greater inequality, as only those villages near tourist centres have improved infrastructure.
Tourism brings an insidious corruption. Trekking along a remote mountain trail, I encountered a young woman carrying a small baby on her back. she looked so careworn and downtrodden that I felt deeply sorry for her. The only way I could think of to help was to give her some money. She was clearly offended- she was not a beggar and she had not asked this foreign interloper for money. All along the trails, small children ask for pens. If you say you have not got a pen, they ask for sweets. If you have not got sweets, they ask for money. Even in an urban setting this can happen. A group of children was going through this routine near the Nyatapola Temple in Bhaktapur. Our local guide scolded us for giving anything: “Our children must learn to fend for themselves, not learn to be beggars”.
In spite of the efforts of NGOs and the money coming in from tourism, Nepal still ranks 138th in the world in overall human development. Half of the Nepalese population lives in poverty. Poverty in Nepal is concentrated in rural villages and among lower castes and ethnic minorities. Villages are often located in remote, mountain areas that are geographically isolated and far from basic services. Rural healthcare services are at best rudimentary, with government health posts often going unstaffed and undersupplied for years.