Tourism

Are the Peaks worth the Risk?

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sam­ina Wahid Sam­ina Wahid is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who con­trib­utes reg­u­larly to var­i­ous pub­li­ca­tions.

Tourism is per­haps one of the largest in­dus­tries in Nepal and a sig­nif­i­cant source of for­eign ex­change and rev­enue for the coun­try. That is why the Nepalese gov­ern­ment de­clared 2011 as the Year of Tourism with the aim to bring in one mil­lion for­eign tourists that year.

The coun­try is home to eight out of ten of the high­est moun­tains in the world – Mount Ever­est be­ing one of them. This makes Nepal an ideal des­ti­na­tion for those who like trekking, moun­tain and rock climb­ing and ad­ven­ture sports. In fact, of all the dif­fer­ent kinds of tourism op­por­tu­ni­ties that Nepal of­fers, ad­ven­ture and eco-tourism are a ma­jor at­trac­tion for vis­i­tors.

Ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Tourism of Nepal, some of the main tourist at­trac­tions in the coun­try are rock and moun­tain climb­ing, trekking, bird watch­ing, para-glid­ing and hot-air bal­loon­ing over the Hi­malayas, raft­ing, kayak­ing or ca­noe­ing, moun­tain bik­ing and jun­gle sa­faris, es­pe­cially in the Terai re­gion, to name a few.

Sadly, how­ever, the min­istry has been un­able to pre­vent moun­tain climb­ing ac­ci­dents in the coun­try. Some of the rea­sons for such even­tu­al­i­ties are over­crowd­ing and the fail­ure to im­ple­ment ad­e­quate safety mea­sures for tourists.

Con­sider, for ex­am­ple, Martin Si­lagi’s case. On May 14, 2013, Si­lagi, an Aus­trian tourist, fell al­most 5,500 me­ters into a crevasse in the Hi­malayas while paraglid­ing. Sim­i­larly, five peo­ple died in the same month when they slipped while climb­ing down Mount Kanchen­junga.

Due to a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in the num­ber of ac­ci­dents in­volv­ing vis­i­tors, tourism has taken a dive in Nepal. Peo­ple – par­tic­u­larly those who are in­ter­ested in ad­ven­ture sports and moun­taineer­ing – are re­luc­tant to come to the coun­try be­cause of lack of im­ple­men­ta­tion of safety mea­sures by the gov­ern­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to rough es­ti­mates, Nepal at­tracted nearly 600,000 for­eign tourists in 2012. Although it is a size­able num­ber, it is less than what the coun­try’s of­fi­cials were hop­ing for. The Nepalese gov­ern­ment is try­ing hard to at­tract new tourists, In­dian and Chi­nese vis­i­tors be­ing on the top of its list, even at the cost of its ex­ist­ing ad­ven­ture tourists who com­prise 40 per­cent of the mar­ket.

How­ever, it has largely failed to pro­vide a sound in­fra­struc­ture to tourists. For one thing, in­ter­na­tional air con­nec­tiv­ity to the coun­try is poor. Only a few air­lines are will­ing to fly to Nepal be­cause of which ticket prices skyrocket dur­ing the peak trav­el­ing sea­son. For an av­er­age tourist, go­ing to Nepal can be an ex­pen­sive propo­si­tion.

The fact that the in­ter­nal road con­nec­tiv­ity is just as bad makes the sit­u­a­tion even worse. Thus, the over­all travel cost to and within Nepal can be un­af­ford­able for many. Nepal’s record in air safety does not help mat­ters ei­ther. In the last two years, there have been six air crashes in the coun­try, killing some 75 peo­ple. These fac­tors force a large num­ber of po­ten­tial ad­ven­ture tourists to look for other op­tions.

De­spite all this, Nepal’s Min­istry of Tourism is de­ter­mined to open five new 8000-me­ter moun­tain peaks in the Hi­malayan

range this year in the hope that it would en­cour­age peo­ple to come to Nepal. This move comes amid grow­ing con­cerns that Mount Ever­est has be­come se­verely over­crowded and dan­ger­ous for climbers.

In April 2013, three for­eign moun­taineers found them­selves em­broiled in a con­tro­versy fol­low­ing a clash with Sher­pas, an eth­nic group of peo­ple who live on the moun­tains. The Sher­pas kicked them and threw stones at them, the moun­taineers claimed. They said that the in­ci­dent was a re­sult of over­crowd­ing and com­mer­cial­iza­tion. Ac­cord­ing to them, feel­ings of re­sent­ment are grow­ing against the in­creas­ing num­ber of “lux­ury moun­taineers” who are taken to the peaks in style by com­mer­cial ex­pe­di­tion ven­tures. This has also led to dan­ger­ous de­lays and long queues, thus caus­ing sev­eral deaths in the process. A case in point is the death of four climbers in 2012 who had to wait for hours to get to the sum­mit be­cause some 300 ‘lux­ury’ climbers were pass­ing at the time.

In the wake of these in­ci­dents, the Nepalese gov­ern­ment has set up a com­mit­tee to re­solve con­flicts be­tween climbers and Sher­pas and to re­duce de­lays dur­ing the peak climb­ing sea­son (April-June). Still, the tourism min­istry has no plans to de­crease the num­ber of climbers on some 1,500 snow-cov­ered peaks. In fact, it plans to open more peaks – many of them still un­named – for tourists in the fu­ture.

“We have 1500 Hi­malayan moun­tains with snow cov­er­age and only 326 of them are open. We have to open more moun­tains and now we are mak­ing a plan for that. We have many moun­tains over 8,000 me­ters. There are four at Kanchen­junga and it’s sim­i­lar at Lhotse,” se­nior tourism of­fi­cial Mo­han Kr­ishna Sap­kota is re­ported to have said re­cently. “You can’t com­pare Ever­est to other moun­tains, but we want to pro­vide an op­por­tu­nity to moun­taineers to climb new moun­tains. We are manag­ing how we can make for safer climb­ing on Ever­est, but the new moun­tains are another is­sue. We are open­ing new tourism prod­ucts for Nepal,” he added.

There is a need to en­sure ad­e­quate safety mea­sures for se­ri­ous moun­taineers be­fore open­ing new peaks. The au­thor­i­ties con­cerned must make this a pri­or­ity is­sue or else moun­taineers will be­gin to think that the Ever­est is not worth the risk.

"Be­fore I left for Ever­est, I said the dan­ger was too many peo­ple on the moun­tain and ac­cepted that as the main dan­ger, I didn't think the main dan­ger would be a mob of Sher­pas throw­ing rocks," Jonathan Grif­fith, a Bri­tish Alpine climber and pho­tog­ra­pher based in France told jour­nal­ists re­cently. He was one of the three climbers who were at­tacked by Sher­pas.

This sen­ti­ment should be a mat­ter of con­cern for the Nepalese gov­ern­ment. It must take stock of the sit­u­a­tion. Oth­er­wise, the coun­try stands to lose out on a huge chunk of rev­enue brought in by tourism.

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