Putting trekking wrongs to right

Posted: 2 December 2002

Author Info: For more information contact Lara Marsh, Campaigns Officer, Email: lara@tourismconcern.org.ukRelated link:Tourism Concern

Frostbite, altitude sickness and even death can be the cost for mountain porters carrying trekkers' equipment in the Himalayas, on the Inca Trail in Peru and at Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. As a response, Tourism Concern, the London-based charity campaigning for ethical and fairly traded tourism, has launched a new campaign for fairer working conditions for porters worldwide.

The campaign is asking holidaymakers who go trekking in mountain regions to press tour operators to establish policies on fair pay and treatment of porters. These include issues such as fair wages, insurance cover for sickness and accident, protective clothing and the weight of the loads that porters carry. The campaign was launched in response to letters of concern from people distressed at witnessing the ill treatment of porters on trekking holidays.

Tourism Concern's campaign briefing Trekking wrongs: porters' rights highlights the brutal conditions in which porters work in the Himalayas, on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Peru and at Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania.

It gives shocking examples of the harsh treatment of porters, such as the case of Kul Bahadur Rai, a Nepalese porter who was hit by altitude sickness while carrying a heavy load for tourists. The trek leader forced him to continue, then left him to descend alone. Kul Bahadur slipped into a coma, and woke in hospital to find that his frostbitten feet had to be partially amputated. The Machu Picchu Porters' Syndicate state in Trekking wrongs: porters' rights: "We are victims of manipulation; of being contracted as 'beasts of burden.' "

Lara Marsh, Tourism Concern's Campaigns Officer, said: "Tour operators are beginning to acknowledge how concerned people are about the often horrific conditions that porters work in. It's so easy for tour operators to make changes which cost them next to nothing, but which make can make a big difference on the ground to the lives of some of the most exploited people working in the tourism industry.

Tourism Concern gives prospective trekkers a list of questions they can ask their tour operators regarding their policies, such as 'what is your policy when porters have accidents or fall ill?' Trekkers are also asked to check that their porter has protective clothing and adequate footwear; that their loads are not crippling; and that they have somewhere to sleep at night. Many porters sleep in the open air in sub-zero conditions.

  • As a result of Tourism Concern's work, 40 of the 80 tour operators contacted by Tourism Concern now have policies to provide essential protection, fair pay and humane working conditions.

    That so many tour operators have come on board to make such important changes is extremely encouraging, says Tourism Concern's director, Patricia Barnett. "No-one wants to see people die during a holiday. Trekkers often assume porters are superhuman and can take these tough conditions. It's a myth, no-one can sleep out in sub zero temperatures without proper protection. The fact that these operators now have policies to protect the porters will make it easier for trekkers to make an ethical decision about who to go with."

    Doug Scott, one of the UK's leading mountaineers who also runs a tour operator business and is founder of Community Action Nepal, says: "Anyone who goes trekking or mountaineering knows that the exploitation of porters is a problem that desperately needs to be addressed... This campaign is a great success story."