Tak­ing the EASY WAY down


The Nation - - EXPLORE -

NEPAL’S PLEDGE to crack down on fraud­u­lent he­li­copter evac­u­a­tions has failed to curb the scam, with tourists still be­ing un­nec­es­sar­ily air­lifted from the Hi­malayas so mid­dle­men can profit on the in­sur­ance pay­outs, in­dus­try sources say.

An AFP in­ves­ti­ga­tion ear­lier this year ex­posed the chop­per racket where dodgy trekking out­fits pres­sure tourists into need­less and costly air­lifts, or bill mul­ti­ple times for a sin­gle flight.

Nepal’s gov­ern­ment launched an in­quiry in June af­ter in­sur­ers were billed more than $6.5 mil­lion (Bt213.5 mil­lion) on 1,300 he­li­copter res­cues in the first five months of 2018.

Global in­sur­ers threat­ened to stop cov­er­ing trav­ellers to Nepal un­less the fre­quency and cost of res­cues fell sharply, wor­ry­ing the poor Hi­malayan na­tion which re­lies heav­ily on tourism rev­enue.

But in­dus­try in­sid­ers told AFP the scam was thriv­ing well into the busy au­tumn trekking sea­son, with op­er­a­tors con­tin­u­ing to make thou­sands evac­u­at­ing tourists months af­ter Nepal promised to rein in op­er­a­tors.

“The gov­ern­ment came up with all these ideas but no one is fol­low­ing it,” says Jay Rana, who acts as an in-coun­try agent for in­ter­na­tional in­sur­ance firms.

In­voices seen by AFP show trekking agencies and char­ter com­pa­nies are still over­billing in­sur­ers for res­cues, col­lect­ing kick­backs be­tween $500 and $2,100 per flight.

The four chop­per firms in­volved most fre­quently in res­cues told AFP they car­ried out 489 air­lifts in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber.

In­dus­try of­fi­cials say the he­li­copter com­pa­nies tend to un­der­state the true fig­ure to avoid com­pe­ti­tion and scru­tiny.

An air­port source, who re­quested anonymity, adds that more than 1,000 chop­per air­lifts were con­ducted over the same two-month pe­riod – with 68 recorded in a sin­gle day in late Oc­to­ber.

But Nepal’s tourism depart­ment – which started mon­i­tor­ing air­lifts in Septem­ber – claimed only 40 he­li­copter res­cues had oc­curred in the two months to Novem­ber.

“There is a lit­tle bit of a prob­lem with the sys­tem in co­or­di­nat­ing with the (trekking and he­li­copter) op­er­a­tors,” con­cedes Dandu Raj Ghimire, direc­tor gen­eral of the tourism depart­ment, re­fer­ring to the new rules the gov­ern­ment im­ple­mented to curb the fraud­u­lent res­cues.

But, he adds, the chop­per scam was “not a big prob­lem nowa­days”.

Nepal’s trekking in­dus­try has be­come hooked on the kick­backs re­ceived from get­ting tourists evac­u­ated by he­li­copter, said Rana.

In one in­stance, a trekking com­pany re­fused to share the lo­ca­tion of a stricken tourist be­cause Rana re­fused to pay the agency a hefty com­mis­sion.

“It was like a hostage sit­u­a­tion,” Rana said, ad­ding the trekker was even­tu­ally brought to lower alti­tude on horse­back.

The gov­ern­ment has also not taken ac­tion against trekking out­fits sell­ing the be­low-cost Hi­malayan trips that are at the heart of the chop­per scam.

The bud­get out­fits bank on mak­ing a profit through the com­mis­sion they re­ceive if a tourist gets air­lifted.

Some of­fer itin­er­ar­ies with­out ac­cli­ma­ti­sa­tion days fac­tored in, or have guides push tourists to skip their rest days, in­creas­ing the risk of alti­tude sick­ness and a pos­si­ble air­lift from the moun­tains.

There are also re­ports of guides putting bak­ing soda –a lax­a­tive –in food to de­lib­er­ately make trekkers ill.

One tourist trekking in the Ever­est re­gion in late Oc­to­ber –who de­clined to be named – says her guide told her that rest days were un­nec­es­sary.

She was evac­u­ated by a he­li­copter with alti­tude sick­ness half­way through her trek.

The gov­ern­ment’s probe has iden­ti­fied 15 com­pa­nies – in­clud­ing he­li­copter firms, trekking agencies and hos­pi­tals – linked to the lu­cra­tive racket.

But no ac­tion has been taken against any of the al­leged per­pe­tra­tors.

“Noth­ing puni­tive is hap­pen­ing,” says Su­raj Paudel, a Swiss-trained moun­tain res­cue spe­cial­ist.

“We are still do­ing the he­li­copter busi­ness like we are buy­ing goats in the mar­ket.”

In­sur­ance com­pa­nies, how­ever, are tak­ing note.

Since AFP’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion pub­lished in June, many UK-based in­sur­ers have hiked pre­mi­ums or in­tro­duced spe­cial ex­cess charges for he­li­copter res­cues in Nepal.

An­thony Kaye, of Camp­bell Irvine In­sur­ance Bro­kers, de­scribed these steps as “a half­way house” and said it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore in­sur­ers stopped is­su­ing poli­cies for Nepal.

“There is no com­mer­cial rea­son to main­tain cover to Nepal given the sus­tained losses. The clock is tick­ing.”

An uniden­ti­fied in­jured per­son is car­ried at the Ever­est Base Camp near Nam­che Bazar.

Mount Ever­est, the world’s tallest peak, seen from Syang­boche.

Mount Ama Dablam in the Hi­malayas, as seen from Khumjung vil­lage in the Ever­est re­gion, some 140km north­east of Kath­mandu.

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