Situated between China and India lies the small land-locked country of Nepal. Slightly larger than the state of Arkansas, Nepal contains eight of the world’s ten highest mountain peaks making it a popular destination for adventurous tourists. Nepal is among the poorest and least developed countries in the world. The country’s population reached more than 21 million in 1994 yet the per capita income is one of the world’s lowest at $160 a year. Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, providing a livelihood for over ninety percent of the population. Nepal is also a producer of cannabis for both the domestic and international markets as well as the transit point for heroin into the West. With the growing number of tourists, however, the Nepalese Government is trying to exploit this resource as well. One Nepalese ecologist says “There are now three religions in Nepal — Hinduism, Buddhism, and tourism.” The influx of tourists has had dramatic effects on the environment and on the local communities who come into contact with the tourists. It is no longer uncommon to find discarded rubbish along the trekking trails. Just as common is the soil erosion during the monsoons as a result of severe deforestation, also caused by tourism. “Tourism is not only the goose that lays golden eggs…it also fouls its own nest,” says a Nepalese scientist.
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The Nepalese portion of the Himalayas was “long remote from the main pathways of international tourism.” The first Americans and Europeans did not enter the region until 1950. Up until 1964 only mountaineering expeditions were permitted to visit the area. In 1971, scarcely one thousand visitors came to visit. “A decade later five times that number visited, and by the end of the 1980s tourists numbered more than 8,000 annually.” In 1993, the figure “was closer to 300,000.” The Nepalese Government hopes to attract a million people within the next ten years. More than ninety percent of these tourists are trekkers, coming mostly from the United States and Western Europe, but also from Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.
With the steady stream of visitors, at least $60 million in foreign currency has been generated each year. One person who is fearful of what this may do to the local cultures and to the environment is Sir Edmund Hillary, now 75. Hillary believes that explorers have an obligation to protect the very things which they come to marvel.
He was a driving force behind the creation of the Sagarmatha National Park and has established a trust which builds schools, hospitals, clinics, bridges and water systems for the Sherpas, whose culture is threatened the most.
Most tourists come to Nepal to trek through the mountains. Trekking may be arranged by a service and done in a group or on one’s own. Group treks are typically prearranged and paid for abroad or in the capital city of Kathmandu. The other alternative is to trek individually without the services of a trekking company.
Individuals instead rely on the villages along the way for food and lodging.
About one-half of the trekkers who come to Nepal, come with commercial groups. These treks generally last between twenty-two and twenty-five days. A trek for twelve clients will contain a support staff of approximately fifty members. Because these groups pay to make arrangements, little money goes to the local communities. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that “only 20 cents of every $3 spent by an average trekker each day reaches village economies. The rest goes for goods imported from outside, notably
the West.” Individual trekkers, however, rely upon local guides and families. This means that more money is dispersed to the local communities.
Regardless of how one travels, the environment and local communities are affected. Mountain trekking is part of a new type of tourism called “adventure tourism.” Adventure tourism attracts people who desire to see exotic and unknown places, primarily in the developing world. Adventure tourists, the name given to tourists who seek this type of tourism, are searching for “authenticity.” This means that the mountain treks are slow journeys which pass through the landscape, “allowing time to
explore both nature and village life.” The core problem is that the environment and communities begin to change as a result of their newfound popularity. The local cultures become influenced by the presence of the trekkers and become modernized in their own
way. Hence, they are no longer considered “authentic” and new “ever more remote locations” must be found. The idea behind “adventure tourism” is that the more remote a location is, the more it is desirable. This means that unless precautions are taken,
degradation will inevitably occur.
Perhaps the most visible impact of trekkers on the Himalaya is the growing amount of rubbish left behind. Galen Rowell wrote of the Himalayas,
The solitary splendor is dazzling – until I glance down
at my feet. There, frozen into the ice cap of Tharpu
Chuli, lies a miniature garbage dump; discarded candy
wrappers, film cartons, plastic bags, wads of tissue, and
half-empty food cans, all of it left by foreign climbing
groups. It is a familiar and sickening sight to old
Himalaya hands – the growing pollution of a priceless
It is estimated that over the past forty years, eighteen tons of garbage, “from tin cans and beer bottles to oxygen tanks…(this does not include such items as abandoned helicopters)” have been dumped on Mount Everest alone. (The helicopters are a new form of tourism, called Sky Treks, for those who do not desire to hike up the mountains. Tourists instead ride helicopters to the top of the mountains, take their pictures, and then return to the bottom again.) Other estimates place the accumulated rubbish at fifty tones which will cost approximately $500,000 to clean up.
A second, and perhaps greater problem than all of the rubbish, is deforestation. Many visitors come to Nepal expecting to see massive forests along the slopes of the Khumba. They do not come expecting to find Western amenities. Often the reverse is true.
Western amenities assault the visitors in the teahouses and guest lodges they find along the trails while the forests are all but gone.
Over the years, the influx of tourists has encouraged changes in the use of forests for fuel wood and construction materials. The forests have typically been used by the Nepali for fuel wood. However, the consumption rates between Nepalis and tourists greatly differs and this is where the problem lies. The demand for fuelwood from tourists has always been a concern for the park planners, administrators, and managers. They consider “fuel-wood use by mountaineering and trekking groups to be one of the main environmental threats” to the parks.
“It has been estimated that four times as much fuel wood is needed to cook a meal for a Western tourist than for a Nepali due largely to differences in diet.” Add to that the fuel wood needed for the daily hot showers and for the bonfires to keep them warm and
“the impact on the forests is devastating.” One trekker alone consumes five to ten times more fuel-wood than one Nepali. In addition to the trekkers who are consuming gross amounts of fuel wood, there are also the estimated “150,000 guides, porters, cooks, and other support staff” who are traveling with the trekkers and who need fuel wood as well.
Massive amounts of fuel wood are needed by the teahouses and guest lodges as well. More and more people are staying in the lodges and the number of lodges has quadrupled since 1976. The lodges and teahouses may use “up to four times as much fuel wood a day” as does a local’s household.” Others have estimated the amount of fuel wood used by one trekker per day to be more firewood than the average Nepali uses in an entire week.
By 1979, the park authorities of Sagarmatha (Mt. Everest) National Park were beginning to see how extensive the deforestation, as a result of tourism, was becoming. As a result, they banned the use of wood for cooking and bonfires. All expedition and trekking groups now must use kerosene stoves to cook. However, there have been no restrictions on the fuel-wood used by loges and teahouses. This must surely change if the country wants to preserve the forests it still has remaining.
In the Annapurna Conservation Area, a program was created to link conservation and development benefits, through tourism and involving the local people. The program helped the local lodge owners see the benefits of halting deforestation. While the trees did provided needed fuel wood, their elimination would destroy the beauty that many of the visitors came to see. The program “organized lodge owners and all agreed to honor a requirement that trekking expeditions had to bring in their own kerosene.”
As a result of the burgeoning influx of tourists, the Nepalese Government began to establish wildlife reserves, national parks, conservation areas, and hunting reserves in 1976. The first three of these protected areas are recognized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) now the
World Conservation Union.
One of the most famous conservation areas is the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) created in 1986. ACAP “was designed to minimize the negative impact from tourism and promote conservation and the socioeconomic development of the region.”
ACAP is unique in that it calls for the participation and management by the local people.
The project is based on the belief that properly managed tourism can bring benefits both to the land and to the people. “Tourists are regarded as partners in fulfilling the goals of biodiversity conservation, cultural revitalisation and sustainable economic
development.” ACAP managers and developers believe that mountain trekking is a form of education which can be used to benefit the
Annapurna region. In addition, the trekkers provide much needed revenue that can be used for further conservation and development programs.
Most tourists come to Nepal either during the “cool, clear days of October and November or during the secondary peak season that extends from March through early May.”
Tourism has contributed in depletion of forest resources in Nepal. It was estimated in one report that per capita fuel wood consumption per individual tourist and group tourist was 5.5 kg and 18.5 kg respectively.
Industry output was $60 million may be as high as 75% concentration in some areas. “Tourism provides the single largest source of foreign exchange for the country’s development plans and the largest source of employment besides agriculture for Nepali
nationals.” Tourism is also the major source of employment for many residents. Employment from tourism is seasonal as a result of the weather. Most people employed by the tourism industry work only four or five months a year. It also varies from community to community depending on the popularity and location of the village.
For most family members, the income is earned through trekking as guides, leaders, cooks, porters, and kitchen crews. During the expeditions the Nepali’s hired to assist trekkers are fed, lodged, and provided with equipment so they return home with all of their earnings. Employment in trekking has been predominate for men but the number of women earning income from trekking is on the rise.
There has also been an increase in the employment and income generated from the establishment of tea houses along the trekking route. An increasing number of tourists “carry light day packs and eat and sleep in the lodges for just a few dollars a day.”
A frequent complaint among the tourists is the lack of sanitary facilities. Sagarmatha National Park, the park which encompasses Mt. Everest, is getting a bad reputation as a result of all the trash. It is ironic that it is the tourists who are causing these problems, yet they believe that it is up to the park authorities to alleviate them.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that if present rates of deforestation continue, Nepal’s forests will be gone by the year 2000. This is troublesome not only because of the soil erosion and habitat loss which result, but also because 86 percent of Nepal’s
energy comes from its forests.
The influx of tourists have had a significant effect on the local communities, especially the Sherpas (a Nepali ethnic group) who live around the trekking routes. The culture of the Sherpas has been changed as well as the structure of the local economies.
When the first trekkers came to Nepal, the Sherpa paid little attention to them. Now that the numbers have increased and the Sherpas’ services are in demand (Sherpas have historically acted as guides, leaders, cooks, porters, etc.), trekking has encouraged a “get-rich-quick” mentality. The result has been a decrease in agricultural production, since it generates less income, and a decrease in school attendance, children dream of becoming guides and drop out of school the moment they get the chance to join an
expedition. The Sherpa see money now when they see a “white face.”
Villages are also becoming more dependent on cash rather than the traditional means of barter and reciprocal labor. This has meant that villages are changing from being self-reliant into beingdependent on “tourist dollars and outside resources to meet their
daily needs.” More and more agricultural fields are left fallow as more men are leaving to seek wealth from tourism. This means that more food must come from outside and that there is less of it, causing higher prices. The higher prices are a hardship on those families who do not have income from tourism. Other traditions are disappearing such as the custom of drinking Tibetan salt-and butter tea. The price of butter makes this drink nearly unaffordable and the supply of tea is uncertain since trade has also been disrupted by the beckoning wealth of tourism employment.
The Sherpas have not saved or invested any of their income generated from tourism. Rather, they have spent it on Western items, further degrading their traditional culture. “Trekking Sherpas,” as they have come to be known as, have discarded their traditional dress for “imported hiking boots, colorful wool sweaters, and down parkas.”
The division of the village into trekking Sherpa and non-trekking Sherpa has resulted in the creation of a new type of class. Whereas there were always class divisions in the past, all of the people dressed and lived in a relatively similar manner. Today donning the Western wear, the trekking Sherpa and his wealth is easy to distinguish from a farmer.
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Another affect of tourism is that local crafts are dying out. These crafts can not generated the same amount of income as tourism and the supplies needed are harder to obtain. The Sherpa now have access to cash, hence they are now able to purchase manufactured items rather than make their own. Wool is one item which has become scarce, hence layers of cotton must be bought and worn to keep warm.
Trekking is one of the highest paying employments in Nepal today. The wealth available from this job draws many youngsters out of school and into tourism. Teaching and government jobs, once considered very prestigious, are no longer desirable since they do not provide the same income as trekking. It is ironic that many youngsters are leaving school since one of the qualifications needed today in trekking is knowledge of spoken and written Nepali and English. The youngsters may be even more valuable if they would continue their education rather than leave after a few years. It is also ironic that the Sherpa do not enjoy the trekking. To them, “climbing is simply a high-paying job.”
The trekking Sherpa are also forced to reflect the image projected upon them by the Western visitors. The Sherpa wear masks, having a public side for the world to see and a private side which is true to themselves. It is hard for the Sherpa, who work twenty-four hours a day, to maintain the public mask. Some Sherpa see themselves partly as actors and entertainers. It is only when the trek has ended that they may unveil themselves and “engage in drinking binges and general hell-raising that may go on for
Finally, there is the disruption to the family life. The men are often away from the home ten months of the year. Many of the trekking Sherpa who are married, keep another woman in the cities where they stay in-between treks. Other Sherpa are enticed by the forward gestures of Western women, who often initiate the affair. “A number of Sherpa women have lost their husbands or fiancââ‚¬Å¡s to foreign women.”
Perhaps a far greater concern is the loss of life. The decreasing number of young men has meant that many women are burdened with raising the children and with the responsibility of the farm-work. The young unmarried women are also disadvantaged since there are fewer young men. One must begin to wonder if it is justifiable to endanger the lives of the Sherpas so that others may enjoy themselves.
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