Open for business: Nepal woos adventure tourists after quake disaster
Leading adventure travel firms plan a return to country devastated by earthquakes that killed 9,000 people, and government is desperate for big-spending visitors to give the economy a boost
There is no doubt that the 7.8 magnitude earthquake Nepal suffered on April 25 and its severe aftershocks delivered a crushing blow to the country's tourism industry. Yet in about 2½ months, Nepal is gearing up to tell the world it's back in the travel business.
Nepal's government is desperate to change the narrative after April's disaster, which killed almost 9,000 people, in time for the peak tourist season in October and November. Visitors bring in US$1.6 billion to a poor country whose economy has been recovering from a decade-long civil war (1996-2006).
Despite many governments warning against travel to Nepal - Hong Kong still has a red warning in place, advising residents to avoid non-essential travel - leading adventure travel companies are planning to return in the near future.
Adrian Bottomley, the owner of Hong Kong-based Whistling Arrow, sees no reason for trekkers not to return in October, although he admits travellers may still be hesitant after seeing media images of the tragedy.
Bottomley says he is organising a 16-day trip for next April and May to the eastern part of the country. The trek will follow the Lumba Sumba Pass, which connects Kangchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain, with Makalu, the fifth-highest peak.
"I was there doing research, and I was on that route when the earthquake struck," he says. "Most of the trails weren't affected, and it's the most beautiful part of Nepal for trekking. It's still relatively untouched. Even at the time of the quake, Kathmandu was functioning like a normal city."
Bottomley says he will post details of the trip on whistlingarrow.com once they have been finalised.
Fiona Marshall of Britain's KE Adventure Travel says: "We've decided to operate in Nepal this autumn. Bookings are slow, but that's natural. We're speaking to people in Nepal every day, and we know the country's getting back to normal."
Bottomley and Marshall point out that most of Nepal was largely unaffected by the earthquake. Of 75 districts, only 14 suffered damage. Almost all national parks and protected areas, including the wildlife sanctuaries of Chitwan and Bardia, are functioning normally. Nepal's only international airport in Kathmandu remained open throughout the critical weeks, and most of the road network was left intact. The exception is the heavily used road into Tibet via Kodari, which remains closed and highly dangerous following new landslides triggered during the monsoon.
Gordon Steer of World Expeditions says it will be operating most of its treks from September. He says the travel advice from Britain's Foreign Commonwealth Office - which echoes the Hong Kong government's advice - has had an impact. "Bookings are down, however, we've been doing this for 40 years, and we're confident we can run our trips safely. We're doing research in our most popular areas, including the Annapurna region and Everest. There was some damage in the Everest region, but many people will barely notice. We won't be going to places like Langtang and Rolwaling," says Steer.
The Langtang valley used to be Nepal's third-busiest trekking destination, popular with independent "teahouse" trekkers and accessible by bus. But the valley suffered some of the worst destruction during the earthquake as a huge landslide swept off the peak of Langtang Lirung to bury the village below. Almost 400 people died, including about 60 trekkers. Despite the damage, and continuing landslides, a local relief agency is organising two volunteer treks in the autumn to Langtang, and a memorial trek has been scheduled for spring.
Half a million people in Nepal work in tourism, more than half of them women, and the World Travel and Tourism Council says that figure could have risen to 700,000 in the next decade. But a recent report shows tourist numbers fell by 90 per cent after the earthquake. It warns that the Nepali tourism industry could shrink 40 per cent from last year's levels.
Government travel warnings have made it difficult for tourists to find travel insurance for Nepal. Shiva Dhakal - owner of Royal Mountain Travel, one of Nepal's biggest travel agencies - says: "Travel insurance is the major problem for us right now. Because of the negative travel advisory [previously] given by the UK government, travellers from the UK are scared."
Ten adventure travel insurance agents contacted in recent weeks said they would not currently cover Nepal.
Nepal's tourism industry is trying hard to reassure potential visitors and their governments. Hotels in Kathmandu have been surveyed, with 90 per cent cleared to operate normally, including hotels in heritage buildings, such as Patan's recently restored The Inn. Several trekking agents have already carried out their own surveys, and the Nepali organisation Samarth has commissioned a report from specialist earthquake engineering firm Miyamoto International to assess the two most popular trekking regions, Annapurna and Everest. That report is due in soon. Post-disaster reports suggest 150km of tourist trekking trails suffered significant damage.
While trekking and other adventure activities account for 40 per cent of Nepal's visitors, the rest come for the stunning cultural and religious heritage, which was badly damaged during the quakes. Almost all the World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu Valley have now reopened despite strongly worded concerns about structural safety from Unesco.
Thomas Schrom is an Austrian conservation architect with 20 years' experience in the Himalayas, having worked on the stunning Patan Museum, one of the finest in South Asia, housed in the exquisite Malla-era Keshav Narayan Chowk palace. "Here in Patan, it really doesn't look too bad," he says. "The collapsed temples have been cleaned up and the remnants stored. The square is open to visitors, and so is the Patan Museum."
Recently developed methods for seismic strengthening, he adds, have made a big difference. Other famous sites in the valley, including Kathmandu's Durbar Square and Swayambhunath (known as the Monkey Temple), fared worse; these are the places Unesco has singled as being of most concern. A safer option is to join the crowds of Tibetans and Sherpas at the vast stupa at Boudha, east of the city, spinning prayer wheels at dusk. The temple complex at Changu Narayan is the only one of Kathmandu's World Heritage sites still closed.
Schrom, who has prepared a post-disaster assessment for Unesco, says more than 700 listed structures have been damaged and a fifth of them destroyed. The department of archaeology says it will need at least US$100 million to restore Nepal's cultural heritage in the Kathmandu Valley and other affected districts, but Schrom says that figure is an underestimate. Sites such as Bhaktapur, the third of Kathmandu's famous palace squares, will come back better than ever - and earthquake-proof.
"What breaks my heart," Schrom says, "are all the sweet little temples and houses in the back alleys that will be lost forever."
Nepal has a worldwide reputation for being the ultimate destination for the adventurous and doesn't intend to give it up. As Steer of World Expeditions says: "There's always some risk attached. But the country has the biggest, most exciting mountains in the world coupled with the most wonderful culture. The people you meet along the way are incredible, and you learn so much. It's the best trekking on earth."
Additional reporting by Mark Sharp