Mountain tourism is one of the backbones of the Nepali tourism industry. In order to understand mountain tourism, we should be clear about the differences between mountain tourism and mountaineering or mountaineering expeditions.
In the book ‘Tourism Management in Nepal’, writer Prof. Hari Prasad Shrestha mentions mountain tourism as adventure tourism based on mountains. It includes mountaineering, rock climbing, trekking, hiking, rafting, kayaking, canyoning, skiing, mountain biking, horseback riding, honey hunting, mountain flights, paragliding and study of the culture, social and economic life of the mountain people or community.
On the other hand, mountaineering is an aspect of mountain tourism. In general, climbing rocky and snowy peaks is called mountaineering. It starts from base camp up to the peak of a particular mountain. Mountaineering is an activity of courageous people, which is an adventurous, dangerous, expensive and time- consuming sports. It is a hard and risky journey on a particular mountain.
Most tourists visit Nepal mainly for holiday / pleasure, tours, pilgrimage, mountaineering, official visit and business. As per Nepal tourism statistics, the total number of tourists from 2015-2019 was 4,602,458, and among them, the number of tourists coming to Nepal for holiday / pleasure holds the highest portion, that is, 3,015,625 (66%), followed by pilgrimage – 14%, i.e., 624,337. Tourists visiting Nepal for mountaineering and trekking purpose accounted for 11 per cent, or 491,986.
Nepal is considered as the most appropriate destination for mountaineering because of the sheer number of mountains – 1,792 peaks above 5,800m. Among them, 414 have been opened officially for climbing, and 1,378 remains to be opened. The government has waived royalty for peaks below 5,800m. So 403 peaks remain officially open to tourists. Nepal has 122 and 1310 mountains above 7,000m and 6,000m respectively. Till 2000, the number of peaks opened for climbing was 160. Then 103, 13, 50 and 104 peaks were opened in 2000, 2003, 2004 and 2014 respectively.
Province 1 has the highest number of mountains – 160 – followed by Gandaki Province with 122 mountains. Bagmati Province is in 3rd position with 52 mountains. Similarly Karnali and Sudurpaschim (Far western) have 60 and 20 mountains respectively. Presently, the Department of Tourism (DoT and Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) issue climbing permits to 376 and 27 mountains respectively.
In 2019, a total royalty of Rs. 686 million was collected by the government and NMA. Of this, 90 per cent was collected from the mountains in Province 1 and 8.45 per cent from the mountains in Gandaki Province. Province 1 has collected the highest royalty since 2017 followed by Gandaki Pradesh.
Earnings from mountaineering by Province 1 is, however, only reasonable. Gandaki Province is on good track, but not very satisfactory. Absence of infrastructure; informative, promotional materials of the mountains; inaccessibility; and awareness among the local people are some of the reasons why mountains of Bagmati, Karnali and Sudurpaschim Province have not been able to attract mountaineers.
Although mountaineering shares third position in the total earnings from tourism, the impact it has on the local level must be considered. Since it is believed that one mountaineer creates employment for at least four people, we can easily calculate the number of people that benefit from mountaineering. Mountaineering is the only sector which gives high return on low investment. Safe and clean accommodation with organic or local food and walkable tracks are enough to attract mountaineers. Hence, the government should pay attention to building more local infrastructure in the mountain area to attract more tourists.
However, the contribution of mountaineering to the national tourism earnings is minimal. Nepal is home to the largest number of mountains above 8,000 m in the world, i.e., 14 mountains, but mountain tourism has yet to make its valuable presence in the tourism sector. It is unclear why our government and tourism stakeholders are reluctant to promote the fact that Nepal alone has 14 mountains above 8,000m. Of the 14 mountains, we are always focussed on eight mountains only whereas climbing permits have been issued for the other six peaks (Kanchenjunga Central, Kanchenjunga South, Yalung Khang, Yalung Khang West, Lhotse Sar and Lhotse Middle) also. There is not sufficient, reliable information about these six mountains in the promotional materials of the Department of Tourism or Nepal Tourism Board.
The irony is that we have to depend on Wikipedia for information on the first ascent of these peaks. Yalung Khang West (8,077 m) is the only peak above 8,000m, which is still unclimbed, but official confirmation remains to be received from the Department of Tourism. Our government should immediately respond to this matter so that we can have additional promotional matter on this peak after COVID 19.
Indeed Nepal is a country with immense natural beauty, biodiversity, rich cultural heritage and water resources. Sandwiched between two big countries – big economic powers of the world – we are not in a position to compete with them in trade and manufacturing. The only sector where we can compete is tourism.
If an appropriate national strategy is adopted for the betterment of the tourism sector, then it will not take much time to develop this sector. Development of local infrastructure in the mountain regions of all the provinces, promotion of all the mountains at the national and international level, opening of restricted areas, easy access to the nearest points of all the mountains with facilities of accommodation, communication, transportation and skilled human resources will help in the equitable development of all the mountain regions.
A flexible mountaineering policy, competitive royalty rates to climb mountains, proper management of waste produced during mountaineering and quick rescue management are some of the factors that need to be considered. This will eventually increase the contribution to foreign exchange earnings made by the whole tourism sector.
Sindurakar is former chief administrative officer at NMA