Published on : Wednesday, November 4, 2020
In 2019 Nepal attracted so many mountain climbers thata human traffic jam of hundreds of mountaineersin puffy jackets snarled a trail to the top of Mount Everest.
The crowds were proof of how fast Nepal’s tourism industry had grown, becoming a lifeline for the country. Last year tourism brought in more than $2 billion to Nepal, one of Asia’s poorest nations, and employed a million people, from porters to pilots.
But the pandemic has stopped all of that.
The trails snaking through the Himalayas are deserted, including those leading up to Everest Base Camp. Fewer than 150 climbers have arrived this fall season, immigration officials said, down from thousands last year.
Countless Sherpas and experienced mountain guides have been put out of work, leaving many to plant barley or graze yaks across the empty slopes to survive.
Partly because of the boost from tourism, Nepal’s economy had been growing faster than India’s, at nearly six percent in 2019. Usually at this time of year, jet after jet would thread the mountain ranges by Kathmandu’s international airport and disgorge thousands of well-heeled tourists, including many Indians, eager to hike in the Annapurnas or up to Mount Everest base camp.
Last year, more than a million tourists visited. The average spent more than $50 a day.
Tourism officials expect that at least 800,000 people employed in the tourism industry will lose their jobs. Among the first to go, officials said, will be the 50,000 or so high-altitude guides, Sherpas and others in the trekking ecosystem. Some have started protesting on the streets of Kathmandu, urging the government to give them loans to help feed their families and threatening to vandalize the tourism board’s office if they get no relief.
“Guides, once known as the real agents of tourism, have been left in the lurch,” said Prakash Rai, a climbing guide who participated in the recent protests. “We have no means to survive this crisis.”
Not long ago, some people inside and outside the country were saying that Nepal’s tourism industry had spun out of control. Nepal was so eager to welcome climbers, these critics said, that the Everest scene had become unruly and dangerous.
Despite the rise in Covid-19 cases, other parts of the economy, like manufacturing, are trying to sputter back to life, and some schools have reopened. Travel restrictions imposed this spring and summer have been eased. A mass exodus has begun from the cities to far-flung villages as Nepalis head home to celebrate the Hindu holidays of Dashain and Tihar.
Yet such movement is bypassing tourist areas.