Dil Kumari is one of the many Nepalis who depend on tourism indirectly for work. // © 2015 Mindy Poder
Feature image (above): Damage in popular tourist sites, such as trekking routes, is minimal. // © 2015 Mindy Poder
During our trek in the Everest Region of Nepal, we found female porter Dil Kumari drinking rice wine while leaning against a Buddhist mani stone.
For about $4 per day, she makes 10 separate trips hauling her 100-pound doko (oversized basket) of leaves to trekking lodges. While that might not seem like much money, it’s more than she would make in her hometown of Gudel, where there is no tourism industry to provide work.
Later, at a teahouse lodge, I learned that one of our Sherpa’s brothers died in the Langtang valley as a result of the April 25 earthquake. I would have never sensed his recent loss, or Kumari’s circumstances, if my guide hadn’t told me.
Directly and indirectly, about 1.5 million Nepalese depend on tourism to earn a living. And now, they’re back to work.
Landlocked with few exports, the country’s biggest assets are its well-preserved traditional culture and religions, its world-famous mountains and its warm people.
But Nepal’s image as a safe destination has suffered from earthquake coverage depicting ruined villages, landslides and avalanches, as well as speculations that Nepal might not be able to service tourists. Most of the tourism industry folks I spoke to reported cancellations in the remainder of the spring season, and about 60 to 70 percent fewer tourists than usual this fall.
But at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, it was business as usual. A Dharma Adventures representative escorted us from the airport and transferred us to Dwarika’s Hotel. Owner Ambica Shrestha told us that she normally wouldn’t be able to host such a large group (I was with Adventure Travel Trade Association’s Adventure Week Rebound event) because October is a peak season for visitors.
Compared to my last visit in early April, Kathmandu felt quiet. There were less Western backpackers in Thamel and fewer tourists at recently reopened cultural sites, such as the Durbar squares in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur and Patan. Most startling were the relatively empty roads, which allowed us to breeze through the city in ease — because of the earthquake, I assumed. But it turns out that Nepal’s crippling shortage of fuel is a direct result of the country’s controversial new constitution, which has also caused protests in areas bordering India and blockades of trade routes between the two countries.
Several tour operators I spoke with said that the fuel crisis, not the earthquake, was their greatest concern at the moment. Dharma Adventures spent additional funds to procure fuel in time for our visit — which ran smoothly. Another operator told me that she went to the airport to make sure there were no issues for her group flying out of Kathmandu — and there weren’t. The only hiccup I experienced was that my flight out of Kathmandu to Hong Kong stopped in neighboring Bangladesh for a quick refuel. Though my experience wasn’t negatively affected, I would still urge agents to keep tabs on the situation. Currently, things are looking up: Nepal recently signed a deal to import fuel from China, which has begun to arrive.
From what I could tell, the earthquake has actually been an opportunity for the country’s tour operators to demonstrate their skill in guaranteeing both safety and rich, cultural experiences for their clients. On my trip, Dharma Adventures arranged for special excursions, such as a visit to the living goddess of Patan and a meditation session with a Tibetan monk at the Tibetan Buddhist Kopan Monastery.
Indeed, it’s tragic that parts of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kathmandu Valley were destroyed, but according to engineer and guide Anil Chitrakar, there is hope for the future.
“Patan is full of artisans because every 100 years, we were hit by an earthquake and had to rebuild,” he said.
Reconstruction will create jobs for artisans, and incentives will promote rebuilding in traditional styles that will help protect Nepal’s intangible heritage. Both Chitrakar and Sumit Baral, a tourism advisor for Samarth–Nepal Market Development Programme, agreed that the earthquake was not a surprise to most Nepalis, though they both said that Nepal was not prepared for it, either.
“The government is working on a strategy themed around ‘Build Back Better,’” Baral said. “They are working on creating building codes that are more earthquake-resilient, which will apply to residences as well as commercial and hotel enterprises.”
I was pleased to see that the domestic terminal of the airport looked better than it had on my last visit, when there were puddles on the ground and the walls were under construction. It is now complete and feels more secure, which is good for groups who must fly to Pokhara for Annapurna treks and Lukla for Everest treks.
After arriving at Lukla, considered the most dangerous airport in the world, we celebrated with a masala chiya (a spicy, milky black tea), while our Sherpas geared up our dzokyo, a hybrid between a yak and a cow. We slathered on sunscreen, adjusted our trekking poles and headed to the town of Monjo, where thoughts of the earthquake were obscured by glacial lakes, mani stones, stupas and joyful children.
The next day in Namche Bazaar, we inspected the minimal damage the town sustained from the earthquake. The dental office, nicknamed the “world’s highest dental clinic,” had completely fallen apart, but its facade was at least halfway rebuilt. I learned that the delay in getting stranded Nepalis into new homes — as seen on television — is widely attributed to a lack of financial support from the government. Most aid has come from international organizations, Nepali citizens and the tourism industry. Dwarika’s, for example, has started Camp Hope, a well-run but basic tented camp for more than 300 evacuated villagers from the Sindhupalchowk district.
Fortunately, restoration doesn’t seem to affect tourists: Most teahouses or tourist-oriented businesses are already restored or under construction. These folks make decent earnings from tourism and are able to carry out their own rebuilding.
The few construction sites I did see were no match for the joy of trekking for the first time in a snowstorm, riding a helicopter over Everest Base Camp, receiving blessings from a lama, catching the sunrise over the mountains and running around with local kids.
The Himalayas are as beautiful as ever, surpassed only by the incredible hospitality and unshakable resilience of the Nepali people.