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By Mathanja van Walinga

Nepal: a natural and cultural variation in tourism
A 5-month study trip to the only Hindu kingdom in the world.

Nepal is often referred to as ‘The Roof of the World’. It is well known that the snowy peaks of the world’s highest mountain range are the Himalayas in Nepal. The fact that Nepal is also the homeland of the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, is often forgotten. Nepal guarantees beautiful natural beauty; imposing vistas, pristine forests, barren plains and cold, deserted mountain passes. Nepal, however, has more to offer; tropical low plains and an impressive culture. No wonder tourism is booming as soon as it gets the chance. For five months I was allowed to stay in this country for an internship. A period that proved very valuable for the work experience and knowledge gained in an area that has left an indelible impression. Ecotourism was the subject I dealt with in Nepal, in this piece a brief overview of what comes with it.

The preparation 

There comes such a moment in your life when you realize that you have to do what you dream of, a moment when you realize that everything can turn out differently than expected, a moment when you realize that life has ended faster than you can imagine. I too had experienced that moment and I solemnly promised myself that I would only do what I dreamed of. It goes without saying that this is not always feasible, but when I was faced with the choice of where I would do my internship I decided to go for what seemed impossible.

For years I was fascinated by the Tibetan plateaus, surrounded by the Himalayas. Mountains have always had an appeal to me, and in that respect the Himalayas are of course the highest achievable. Movies, books, pictures, it all captured the imagination. It was this area that popped through my head when asked where I would like to complete my internship. But could I be able to withstand that climate, the completely different culture and a more practical question, would there be organizations or companies hiring interns? In addition, there was a more ethical question, was it good to go to Tibet, after the Chinese intake? After careful consideration of all these questions, my answer was ‘no, not to Tibet’.

So Tibet had dropped out as an option, but “that side” kept interesting me. That was when Nepal came into the picture. A Himalayan kingdom that seemed a lot more accessible. I spent several months looking up companies and organizations that seemed interesting to me and sending application letters. Without any luck. As time was running out I had to let go of my dream and started to search in other countries as well. Just after New Year, however, a special e-mail arrived. The organization, which I had already set my mind on months before, said that they had received an assignment in which they could use my help. Could I possibly be in Kathmandu next Thursday?

A hectic week followed and I couldn’t quite realize what exactly was happening. Before I knew it, I said goodbye to my family at Schiphol and boarded the plane, alone. First to London and then on to Abu Dhabi. On the way to another world. After more than 20 hours I made the most beautiful landing of my life, at the foot of the Himalayas in the Kathmandu Valley.

The assignment

As beautiful as Nepal may be, the coming months would not be a holiday. The assignment was to articulate ecotourism initiatives in the country in such a way that they can be included in a textbook for a course in planning and management of ecotourism for the forestry faculty of a renowned Nepalese university. In the course of time, however, this assignment became more extensive, when it turned out that a lot of theory could be added. An intensive assignment that required a lot of knowledge. Knowledge that I did not have at the time, so there was a lot of work to be done. A lot of literature research in the office, reading a lot to learn a lot and every now and then looking at some of the country, how the tourist initiatives work in practice.

Tourism in Nepal

Tourism is a fairly recent phenomenon in Nepal. During the 1950s, Nepal’s borders were opened to foreigners. In these first years after opening, mainly foreigners with a curious character, who liked to discover new areas were coming. The main motivation was the high Himalayan peaks. Later, people were also drawn to the sociocultural aspects of Nepal and tourism exploded. Unfortunately Nepal was not exactly prepared for this and tourism development mainly took place unplanned. Later, however, the “Nepal Tourism Board” was established, which later grew into a complete tourism department.

Tourism is an important element of Nepal’s economy. Tourism provides employment and is almost the largest source of foreign income. Setbacks in the tourism sector are therefore hard to come by, throughout the country. The crisis in Southeast Asia, terrorist threats and the internal Maoist unrest have a major impact on the economic situation in Nepal.

Sustainability in Nepal

Nepal is a developing country, it is one of the poorest countries in the world. This is certainly noticeable in everyday life, but when talking about tourism you quickly forget that. Remarkable is the attention paid to nature conservation. Initiatives to make tourism more sustainable are clearly present. This is largely due to the presence of many international organizations. These organizations are active in various areas, from practical help (training and financing) to advising the government. Projects are active throughout the country that stimulate sustainability (nature, culture and economy).

Sustainable initiatives, however, always come from international organizations, so from outside. Nepal did not officially open its borders until the 1950s. Only from that moment on it was open to foreigners, but it is only since these years that Nepal has been able to get to know the outside world. Technical developments and progress in ideas and thoughts as they could have taken place in the western world has taken place completely outside Nepal. In the past 50 years, Nepal has undergone major changes and has been confronted at a rapid pace with technical, social and cultural influences. The idea of ​​sustainability has undergone total development in the west, but Nepal simply has not had time for this yet. The development of sustainable ideas and the necessity of this will therefore mainly be a matter of time.

Culture in the Kathmandu Valley

The Kathmandu Valley is the center of all activities in Nepal. The capital, Kathmandu, is located in this valley. In addition, the cities of Patan and Bhaktapur are also located in this same valley. As a result, it is also in this valley where the majority of Nepalese inhabitants live. Partly because of this, the Kathmandu Valley is the place where Nepalese culture and religion is visible. For example, the main religious shrines, Swayambhunath and Boudha, are located in Kathmandu. Nepal is a Hindu kingdom, so the main belief is Hinduism. Despite this, Nepal has a special confluence with Buddhism. Buddha statues can be found in typical Hindu temples, and vice versa. Tolerance towards other religions is very high in Nepal. This is also strongly reflected in the number and type of festivals and days off. Hinduism has many festivals (with millions of gods there is always cause for celebration) that also mean official holidays. In addition, Buddhist holidays are celebrated and also from other faiths, such as Christianity and Islam, more and more holidays are adopted. That is why you don’t have to be surprised in Nepal when ‘New Year’ is celebrated three times a year!

Also in terms of art and culture, the Kathmandu Valley is the place to be. Several museums contain art treasures, but a walk through the city with the characteristic streets teeming with people, and over the famous central squares (Durbar Squares) make the art and architecture a lot more lively. In essence, the Kathmandu Valley is a huge open-air museum; many buildings are decorated with the most beautiful carvings and there are really small places of sacrifice on every street corner. Moreover, there are also hundreds, often hidden, temples where the most beautiful statues, paintings, prayer wheels and copper work can be seen. The great thing about Nepal is that all these shrines are not seen as “places of interest”, but are used very intensively. Art is therefore not an object to look at, but is an everyday tool. This greatly enhances the experience of the tourist, because you do not need booklets explaining how everything is used. All you have to do is keep your eyes and ears open and a whole different world opens up.

That tourists are surprised has certainly already been noticed by the Nepalese. Likewise, many utensils and images are widely reproduced and sold on every street corner, often through very aggressive sales methods. It is this souvenir shop that is the best proof of a certain commercialization of culture. Furthermore, it is the large, expensive hotels that make grateful use of the rich Nepalese architecture for their interior and exterior. Although Western influences are increasingly noticeable in Nepalese culture, the majority of them remain extremely proud of the authentic lifestyle and religion.

Trekking through the Himalayas

Nepal is the Himalayan country par excellence. It is not without reason that the majority of all tourists come for the natural beauty of the country. Kathmandu is still filled with chaotic traffic, exhaust fumes and a lot of noise, outside it is an oasis of peace. Trekking is the most ideal way to discover nature up close, and also to get closer to the majestic peaks of the Himalayas. Pokhara (west of Kathmandu) is the best base for trekking through the Annapurna Massif and is also the center of trekking. Yet you will also find opportunities to make beautiful trips at Kathmandu. Nearby, Nagarkot, famous for its beautiful sunrise and sunset, is a great destination for a short trek. A little further is the special Langtang Valley. To the east, the area around Sagarmatha, Mount Everest, presents a challenge for trekkers. During my stay in Nepal, I visited Nagarkot and also took treks through both the Annapurna Massif and Langtang area.

More than 11% of Nepal is a protected area, in the form of National Parks and game reserves. This is for a reason. Nature is very varied in Nepal, and especially the Himalayas, the high mountains, are very vulnerable. The popularity of Mount Everest has an almost indelible effect on the Sagarmatha National Park. The trail to Mount Everest base camp was soon known as the “garbage trail”. Garbage was a major problem, as were the bodies of crashed climbers at higher altitudes. A waste disposal program was set up and strict codes of conduct were established. Despite this, waste remains one of the biggest problems. Since waste collection and disposal is impossible given the distances (everything has to be covered by foot), the only solution is to motivate the tourists. The code of conduct “carry out what you carry in” seeks to get all waste back to the city (Kathmanu or Pokhara), where there are better options for processing. Another effective campaign that tries to reduce the amount of waste focuses on the water bottles. Because water from the tap is not drinkable, bottles of drinking water must be purchased. During a draw, several bottles per day are used and thrown away. However, it is now possible to fill bottles almost everywhere. In the teahouses and lodges en route, water is well boiled so that it is usable, this makes a significant difference in the amount of plastic water bottles thrown away. Besides waste, there are many other negative effects of tourism on the natural environment. Disruption of wildlife, increasing use of wood for cooking and heating, reduction of flora through the picking of flowers and plants, to name a few. An advantage is that everything has to be done on foot, which prevents exhaust fumes. On the other hand, for longer treks in remote areas, an airplane often has to be used to get to the starting point.

Tourism also has an effect on the socio-cultural situation of the areas concerned. Traditional relationships are disrupted by increasing economic differences and traditional culture suddenly becomes an attraction. The effects of tourism are particularly great in remote areas, because developments here are much slower and people still live in an authentic way. For example, it happens that mountain peoples see an airplane rather than a car. It makes sense that this disrupts comprehension and fosters a fear of renewal.

From an economic point of view, tourism has an enormous impact in these mountain areas. This is particularly noticeable in the Annapurna area, which is highly developed in terms of tourism. This area was the first protected area for which a detailed management plan was drawn up. Tourism has been given every opportunity. It is clearly visible along the large, popular paths that people have been able to profit from the money that is coming in. It is here that restaurants with western food are available, lodges with hot water and signage. Most of the people living on these popular routes have had some form of education related to tourism, including women. Unfair competition is fought and new sources of income are encouraged. The difference with those who live further from the route is great, and social effects become noticeable. It is a different story in Langtang. Here too a project has been set up to combat unfair competition and to provide information about more sustainable use of raw materials. Langtang, however, is still less touristy than Annapurna, especially since it includes only one route in the Langtang Valley, the economic consequences are not that scattered.

In Nepal, however, an entrance fee is charged for entering the various National Parks. In this way, the tourist contributes to the conservation of nature, as this money is used for nature conservation. A distinction is made between local tourists, tourists from Asia and other tourists (Europe and America).

Jungle in the south

Although the association with the Himalayas is very obvious when mentioning Nepal, this country has more to offer than just snow-capped peaks. In the south lies the Terai, the lowland of Nepal, also called the “granary” of Nepal. This area, bordering India, is the agricultural center of Nepal; most of the food comes from here (especially rice) and the level of prosperity is slightly higher here. This area does not show any resemblance to the high mountains; here is a tropical climate and the flora and fauna is completely different. The Chitwan National Park is one of the biggest attractions in Nepal, and next to Lumbini (the birthplace of Buddha) the most visited destination is the Terai. Sauraha is the tourist village from which every tourist makes trips in and around the National Park. A quiet place with all the ingredients to please the tourists. The most popular excursion is by elephant through the National Park to view rhinos and other wildlife. 

Sauraha owes its existence to tourism. It is a typical tourist village with countless accommodation options and dining options. Because the focus on tourism is so strong, there is a risk that the dependency will become too great. Problems can arise when tourism income falls, when there is no alternative source of income.

In the rest of the Terai, initiatives to stimulate tourism are also emerging, for example in Koshi Tapu (eastern Terai) the “Migratory Bird Festival” is held annually. A festival in honor of the migratory birds to stimulate tourism to the region. It is mainly domestic tourism that is attracted, because Koshi Tapu is too far off the tourist routes. Nepal is not that big in terms of surfaces, but the infrastructure prevents rapid transport.

Recommendations for making tourism more sustainable

Most of Nepal’s tourism activity is unsustainable. The balance between nature, culture and economy is not excellent. These three elements must find a better balance to pursue sustainability. However, the question is how realistic this aim is. International organizations have set up numerous projects to promote sustainability. Because these projects are all from foreign organizations, there is the question whether sustainable initiatives are actually sustainable, since Nepalese supporters are not self-evident.

Making tourism in Nepal more sustainable will mainly depend on the tourists who visit the country. They mostly come from Western countries, where sustainable ideas are increasingly being promoted. They will have to behave “more sustainably”, take responsibility for their own impacts. Nepal will of course also have to develop a more sustainable attitude. However, this requires a certain economic development. Currently, survival is still central to many Nepalese. Only when life in Nepal becomes easier, ideas about sustainability can have a chance.

Interesting links:

Nepal Tourism Board

Ministry of Culture, Tourism & Civil Aviation

Lumbini Reizen en Welzijn
Organises trips to Nepal and Tibet and a part of the revenue goes to a scholarproject in Nepal.

Kathmandu Environmental Education Project (KEEP)

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