Reflections from Nepal: Is there a sustainable future for tourism in Asia?   

Nepal, with its stunning natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, remains one of the poorest countries in Asia despite surging visitor numbers. On a recent trekking trip, Zafirah Zein witnessed the impact of tourism on its environment and people, and wonders what the future of tourism will look like in developing Asia.

Straddling the high Himalayas between Asian giants China and India, the landlocked country of Nepal receives hundreds of thousands of tourists drawn to its mountain mecca each year.

Just last month, overcrowding on Mount Everest contributed to the deaths of over 10 climbers after a record number of permits were issued to scale the world’s highest peak.

Concern over waste pollution on the mountain also led to a massive clean-up in April of 3,000 kilogrammes of solid waste. The ugly side of tourism is mirrored in other popular destinations. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), 4.8 million tonnes of solid waste generated globally comes from tourists around the world.

Two months ago, unable to resist the lure of the Himalayas, I joined the throngs of foreign trekkers, adventure travellers and nature enthusiasts who flock to Nepal to climb in the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA).

Established in 1985 to address the environmental degradation caused by a tourism boom that began shortly after the country opened up in the 1950s, the Annapurna Conservation Area not only aims to protect the mountain ecosystems, but serves to restore ownership of the environment to local communities that live close to the country’s rich natural resources.

The climbing industry reels in around US$300 million each year for one of Asia’s poorest countries while tourism contributes 7.5 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP), a number that is expected to grow by 4 to 5 per cent each year. 

In 2018, Nepal’s tourist arrivals exceeded a million, a boon for a country that suffered extensively after the 2015 earthquake.

During my trip, however, I was struck by the glaring impact of tourism on the natural environment, community livelihoods and cultural heritage. Local teahouses teemed with foreign backpackers and structures such as cafes and toilets catering to trekkers dotted the lofty landscape.

Maybe it was the sight of the queues waiting to ascend the next muddy slope, of our mobile phones jostling for juice from the single electrical multi-socket plug at the teahouse, or my guilt from the careless use of tissue paper, but I realised that foreign travellers like myself probably leave a much larger environmental footprint in Nepal than we are aware of.  

Who benefits from tourism?

Tourism traditionally incurs a large eco-footprint, increasing vehicular traffic and driving the construction of large hotels in developing countries, many in Asia, that offer pristine coastlines, lush paddy fields and majestic mountain views.

Many companies that set up camp in these areas are also foreign-owned, with multinational companies accounting for “tourism leakage”, where money spent by visitors ends up outside the local economy.

In Nepal, community-based tourism in prime areas – generating jobs and income for porters, guides, lodge owners, tourism operators, cooks and drivers – has been the government’s main course of action. 

My local guide Tika, with 20 years of trekking experience under his belt, called tourism “the new religion” in Nepal, a country steeped in religious and cultural traditions.

Even as he contemplated the changes in these once-remote areas, such as shift from agriculture and animal husbandry to jobs in tourism, he told me that tourism has undeniably brought with it economic opportunities, especially for those living in Annapurna and the Mount Everest region.

Mario Hardy of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), whose organisation helped to rebuild the country’s brand image after the earthquake, said that although tourism provides a good source of income for the local population, Nepal risks being “a victim of its own success”. 

“The government has branded their country successfully but it is not focused on fixing the big challenges around infrastructure and environmental disasters. If the current infrastructure cannot cope with its own citizens, how will it cope with 2 to 4 million visitors in the future? There are still gaps in critical necessities like electricity, water and waste management,” said Hardy, PATA’s chief executive officer.

According to Nepali journalist Ramesh Bhushal, who has spent more than a decade reporting on the environment and climate change in the Himalayas, the government has steered the country towards mass tourism because of the major role that the industry has played in its development.

“This puts us in trouble because there is only so much you can control with those numbers of visitors coming in,” he said. “This country is really not made for millions of people to come at a time. We can’t be Bangkok. Nepal should not have followed the policy of mass tourism because the country appeals more to people who value nature and can be engaged in responsible tourism.”

This country is really not made for millions of people to come at a time. We can’t be Bangkok.

Ramesh Bhushal, local environmental journalist 

According to Hardy, PATA promotes the idea of capacity management and tourism dispersal as a way to manage numbers in places buckling under the weight of development, pollution and overpopulation. The plan is to divert tourists to less visited areas in the country, where they can enjoy experiences that are authentic, off the beaten track and that directly benefit local communities.

Asked if the presence of foreigners would disrupt areas and communities that were previously untouched, he said planning is essential before tourists are redirected to new places. “If it’s a remote community, you first need to talk to [the locals] and ask if they’re aware of the potential benefits and risks.”

PATA helps to ensure that proper education and infrastructure are in place to support the introduction of tourism to such isolated areas. Its work also enables local communities to develop their own businesses while taking ownership of their lands and culture, he said.

My friend Arjun Adhikari, founder of local travel and trekking company Into Nepal, believes guided treks coupled with homestays are one of the best ways for foreigners to experience the cultural diversity of Nepal while directly helping its citizens.

Said Arjun, who spent years as a porter and guide for other companies before starting his own business: “It’s a win-win situation, especially in a country where tourism provides the main bulk of the economy.”

The trip to Nepal gave me new impetus to protect the remaining natural and cultural heritage left on Earth today.

Besides seeing the difference I could make by foregoing tissue paper and taking my own trash down the mountain, I also took away valuable questions to ask for my next trip: What can I do to better understand the impact of my travel choices? How can I leave the people or places I encounter better off—or at the very least, no worse off—than before?

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