Mountain tourism in Nepal: The next fall season with question marks

Manaslu
The 8,163-meter-high Manaslu in western Nepal (in 2007)

Somehow it fits the desolate situation of tourism in Nepal. The important fall season for expeditions and trekking is just around the corner, and the responsible ministry is leaderless. The new prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, who took office on 13 July after a ruling by Nepal’s Supreme Court, has not yet appointed a new tourism minister. The head of government himself has taken over this task on a temporary basis.

At the same time, the tourism industry has its back against the wall as a result of the corona pandemic. In 2020, according to government figures, the number of foreign visitors fell from around 1.2 million in 2019 to around 230,000, a drop of 80 percent. Similarly, the number of mountaineers and trekkers declined, down 79 percent, from about 172,000 to just under 36,000.

One-week quarantine continues

Arrival at Kathmandu Airport

And this year, too, things are looking bleak: Just about 61,000 tourists arrived in the first seven months. “The fear of contracting the virus has stopped the flow of tourists despite their want to travel to the country,” Maniraj Lamichhane of the Nepal Tourism Board said recently. “Also, despite the resumption of flight services, the prices of air flights have increased due to limited flights.”

For trekking tourists in particular, the current quarantine regulations are also likely to be a deterrent. Even those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 must spend a week in quarantine in the capital Kathmandu before they can move freely around the country. The only difference compared to the unvaccinated with a negative PCR test is that the vaccinated are free to choose their quarters, while the unvaccinated must move into one of the official quarantine hotels designated by the government. Considering that the average length of stay of tourists in Nepal last year was 15 days, it becomes clear where the problem lies: What tourist wants to spend half of their vacation in quarantine? 

Low vaccination rate

This is especially true in the trekking sector. Many of the about 2,800 registered trekking agencies in Nepal have had no income for almost a year and a half. Even for this fall, there are only “a few inquiries,” Sarita Lama, secretary general of the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN), writes to me. She, too, complains that the Ministry of Tourism is currently leaderless. Together with other stakeholders, TAAN has appealed to the government to support tourism, including by vaccinating all employees in the industry within a month. To date, only 13.5 percent of people in Nepal have been fully vaccinated, 17.3 percent have received their first dose.

The infection rate in the Himalayan state is no longer as dramatically high as it was in May, when at times more than 9,000 new infections per day were recorded. But there are still around 2,000 new cases every day. Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 750,000 COVID infections have been counted in Nepal, and around 10,500 people have died from the virus. However, the number of unreported cases is likely to be high in view of the very limited testing possibilities.

Only vaccinated people allowed to go to the Khumbu

Namche Bazaar

The administration of the Khumbu region, the area around Mount Everest, has now asked domestic airlines to fly only vaccinated tourists from Kathmandu to Lukla, the gateway to the region. According to the local authorities, 98 percent of those over 18 in the Khumbu are now fully vaccinated. This coincides with information I received from Namche Bazaar, the main village in the Khumbu.

Last spring, there were only few trekking groups in Nepal, but rather many commercial expeditions. This could be repeated this fall, although some Western operators continue to steer clear of Nepal because of the pandemic. Some operators have offered expeditions to the eight-thousanders Manaslu and Dhaulagiri and to the seven-thousander Himlung Himal in the west of the country. The 6,814-meter-high Ama Dablam in the Khumbu region is also likely to see many mountaineers again this fall.