Country report - 1. Nepal

Posted: 10 July 2001

Can trekkers help Manaslu?As trekking in the Nepalese Himalayas grows in popularity, the balancing act between tourism and conservation gets ever-more difficult. Here, Manesh Shrestha reports on the dilemmas caused by opening up the remote Manaslu range to organized groups.

Trekking in Nepal has come a long way since February 1965 when a group of three American women went on an organised trek from the outskirts of Kathmandu to Tengboche monastery in the foothills of Mount Everest. Today more than 40,000 foreign visitors walk in the Himalaya every year admiring the majesty and beauty of the world's greatest mountain range.

The Himalaya stretches across the nearly 900 kilometres length of northern Nepal but only three areas are popular with tourists - the Khumbu region in the east where lies Everest, the Langtang National Park in central Nepal and the Annapurna area in west Nepal, with the last topping the list.

Other than the fact that trekking in this ruggedly mountainous country is a strenuous exercise involving several hours of walking up and down Himalayan valleys every day for weeks, one other factor has limited the growth of this adventure sport. There is little infrastructure in this country - one of the poorest in the world.

Except in the more popular routes, trails are in poor condition, acute deforestation has led to frequent landslides, boarding and lodging facilities are poor and clean drinking water is not always available. Yet, because tourism is the country's second highest foreign exchange earner (after carpet exports), contributing nearly four per cent of the gross domestic product, the government is keen to attract more tourists.

Trekking in the Nepalese Himalayas© Hartmut Schwarzbach/Still Pictures

Trekking route

The remote and hitherto restricted Manaslu area named after the world's eighth highest peak was opened for 'organised' trekking in 1991. Organised is the key term here. While trekkers can walk in the more popular areas all alone and sleep and eat at tea houses along the way, those trekking in Manaslu must travel in groups and must have their food arranged for by Kathmandu's trekking agencies as there are no tea houses or lodges for tourists along the three-week trekking route.

There are other restrictions. Fuelwood may not be used to cook food and kerosene or other alternative energy need to be used. Since there are no shops along the trail, all kerosene must be carried from Kathmandu or the nearest town in the lowlands. The same applies for foodstuffs. Says a government official, "These measures have been taken so that tourists do not put on added pressure to the fragile environment of the region."

All rubbish produced on the trek must be burnt and buried. Empty bottles and tin cans are usually brought back to the town where the trek ends. Says Iman Gurung, a trekking guide, "We guides know about cleanliness and the need to protect the environment." Since there are no toilets in all of the Manaslu region pit latrines are dug for the foreign trekkers.

Besides Mount Manaslu (8,163 m), this extremely rugged region has a host of other peaks like Himalchuli (7,893 m), Peak 29 (7,871 m) and Baudha (6,672 m). There are many glaciers and glacial lakes as well which are a major attraction.

A government-appointed environment officer accompanies the trekking groups to Manaslu to ensure that the regulations are followed. Trekkers have to sign a pledge before trekking permits are issued. The first sentence of reads, "We shall keep clean the trekking route and environment."

The Manaslu region is rich in biodiversity. The lowlands and deep valleys have riverine forests of sal and pine trees. The higher altitudes have conifer, birch, larch and fir forests and finally junipers and alpine meadows. All within a 100-kilometre trail.

According to one study there are more than 200 species of plants, 11 types of forests, more than 50 species of valuable medicinal and aromatic plants; 29 species of mammals, above 20 species of birds and three species of reptiles. Villagers have reported sightings of musk deer, blue sheep, snow leopard, black Himalayan bear and red panda among other animals, says a study conducted by the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.

Who benefits?

In the tightrope walk between tourism and conservation the government's efforts may deserve some recognition. But who does tourism in Manaslu benefit?childrenLocal children greet trekkers in Manaslu region, Nepalese Himalayas© Kanat Mani DixitThe trekking agencies based in Kathmandu charge trekkers to Manaslu anything between US$ 50-100 each per day for full board and guides. The trekking agencies buy all provisions in Kathmandu. "We have no other option since there is hardly anything available on the trekking trail. Sometimes vegetables are available but there is no guarantee," says Padam Singh Ghale, who runs a trekking agency in Kathmandu. Even the porters are from the lowlands. "Highland porters want to be paid for the days taken to walk back to their villages when the trek ends in the lowlands," says Ghale.

One income the villagers on the Manaslu trail get is from the one dollar they charge for each tent pitched at the campsites along the way. Another is their earning from what porters spend. They eat in the tea shops or at villagers' houses along the way and, when possible, sleep there.But this comes at a price. The porters' meals are prepared from fuelwood which comes from the trees felled in the area. Every trekker has at least two porters with him and they carry everything, from the (mem)sahib's toilet paper to chocolates. In 1995, 677 trekkers visited Manaslu. This means around 2,000 trekkers went trampling along to the area which in 1992 had a population of only 6,280.

Subsistence agriculture is the main occupation of the Bhotias (people of Tibetan origin) who live here. According to a 1992 survey carried out by the German development agency, GTZ, only 12.5 per cent of the populace produce enough grain for the year. Off-farm employment opportunities like portering and other wage labour are few and far between.

Trekking agencies, meanwhile, make 15-50 per cent profit from what they charge trekkers. And while each trekker pays US$ 75-90 for a week's trekking permit to the region, none of this goes directly to the area's development.

In contrast, trekking permits to other areas costs US$ 5. In addition trekkers must pay Rs 650 ($ 12) to enter Langtang and Everest national parks and 30-50 per cent of this is spent for the area's development as the law stipulates. In the case of Annapurna conservation area visitors are charged Rs 1000 ($ 18) each, all of which legally goes to an endowment fund for the area's integrated development. The government plans to declare Manaslu a conservation area but no one knows when that will happen.

Ecotourist plan

To tackle this situation, the government this year began a five-year Manaslu Eco-tourism Project (MEP). "We want to build tourism infrastructure, help the local community benefit from tourism and at the same time help the conservation of environment," says Ghana Shyam Gurung, chief of the project. "At present, villagers lack even the awareness to protect the environment."

Syala, a settlement on the trail, for example, had a beautiful forest a few years ago but now five hectares have been cleared of trees. In this region, whole houses, from the roof to the floor are made of wood. Any other construction materials must be bought in the nearest town which is several days' walk away.

"Only high volume tourism, say 5,000 trekkers per year, will benefit the local community," says Gurung. But at present the government allows only 1,500 tourists per year in the area. The MEP will work toward increasing the "carrying capacity" of the region.

To begin with, vegetable gardening, poultry and handicrafts based on forest produce are some of the income-generating activities that the local residents will be trained in. MEP also has plans to train local guides so that trekkers learn from the area's rich cultural heritage of Tibetan Buddhism. Community-owned lodges will be opened and management, cooking and other training will also be provided. The project will also look into the possibility of refurbishing parts of the villagers' homes into lodges for tourists.

However, it is not only in tourism promotion that MEP will be contributing. "Our approach is an integrated one," says Gurung. Three micro-hydel stations are also in the pipeline as is construction of health posts, toilets and drainage systems. "Our biggest asset will be our experience," says Gurung. MEP is a project operated by King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation, a body which has been involved in the highly successful Annapurna Conservation Area Project for sustainable tourism.

It is obvious that though the government's decision to impose restrictions on trekking groups to Manaslu was well intentioned, it was not enough for success in sustainable tourism. The impoverished locals have not benefited and that has led them to question the decision to allow tourists into the area. MEP will hopefully make them believe that tourism will help improve the quality of their lives without damaging the precious environment of the pristine Manaslu region.

Manesh Shrestha is a staff writer with the Kathmandu-based Himal magazine.