Flights of fancy: how Nepal’s trekking industry is cashing in with the Himalayan helicopter ‘rescue racket’
Trekkers with minor ailments are pressured into costly helicopter evacuations, as guides, brokers, flight firms and hospitals all profit at the expense of insurers
Tourists hiking in Nepal’s Himalayan mountains are being pressured into costly helicopter evacuations at the first sight of trouble by guides linked to powerful brokers who are making a fortune on “unnecessary rescues”, industry insiders say.
Dodgy operators are scamming tens of thousands of dollars from insurance companies by making multiple claims for a single chopper ride or pushing trekkers to accept airlifts for minor illnesses, an investigation has revealed.
In other cases, trekking guides, promised commission if they get tourists to return by chopper, are offering helicopter rides to tired hikers as a quick way home, but billing them as rescues to insurance companies.
The practice is so rampant helicopter pilots are reporting “rescuing” tourists who appear in perfectly fine health.
“It’s a racket that’s tantamount to fraud, and it’s happening on a large scale throughout Nepal,” said Jonathan Bancroft of UK-based Traveller Assist, which carries out medical evacuations in Nepal on behalf of global travel insurance companies.
Trekking outfits stand to make more in kickbacks from evacuating a hiker by helicopter than the cost of the trek itself, contributing to an alarming rise in rescues from Nepal’s biggest tourist attraction: the fabled Himalayas.
Traveller Assist said 2017 was the most expensive year on record for travel insurance companies covering tourists in Nepal due to a startling number of helicopter rescues – though this year is on track to beat it.
There is no centralised dispatch centre for helicopter flights in Nepal making it difficult to know precisely how many evacuations are carried out.
But over the past six years the skies of the Everest region have turned into a helicopter highway, with a six-fold increase in the number of choppers in the air, each logging over 1,000 flying hours per year, according to industry data.
“We used to see maybe one helicopter in two or three days. Now we are seeing 10 or so in a day,” said Thanishwar Bhandari, who works as a small clinic in the Everest region.
Meanwhile, one foreign pilot, who requested anonymity, said he rescued trekkers on a near daily basis in April and May this year, peak trekking season. Few appeared to be truly in need of rescuing.
“I think I took three people the whole season who appeared genuinely ill,” said.
Australian trekker Jessica Reeves was urged by her guide to be evacuated by helicopter from near Everest base camp in October 2017 when she complained of a common cold.
“He kept telling me to get a helicopter,” Reeves said. “They said if I keep going it would be really risky so it was better to leave now instead of risking it.”
Reeves said nine or 10 hikers in her group ended up returning to Kathmandu on three helicopters but were instructed to say they were alone on the flight back.
She alleged the company, Himalayan Social Journey, billed each of the tourists’ insurance providers for the whole flight – pocketing around US$35,000 in the process.
“They told us all to lie to the insurance company and say there was only one person on the helicopter when there were three or four of us on each,” she said. Reeves’ insurance claim was in any case rejected because her policy had expired.
The company owner, Ram Sapkota, denied that the insurance companies were each billed for the full flight.
“(They) claimed insurance on a sharing basis and we received money from (the) insurance,” he said, dismissing allegations as “fake”.
Sapkota blamed the rise in helicopter rescues from the Himalayas on lazy hikers and hypochondriacs.
“When one client gets sick, then the group they say, ‘I feel unsafe and just want to go’,” he said.
But extensive interviews with players at every stage of the commission chain reveal that guides, trekking operators, lodge owners and charter companies are acting as brokers, playing helicopter companies off against each other to secure a cut of the rescue fees.
One manager of a Kathmandu-based helicopter company said they paid US$500 to brokers for each rescue flight.
“If we don’t pay the commission, we can’t get the business,” the manager said on condition of anonymity.
The cost of the 14-day trek to Everest base camp varies wildly between the outfits, but many offer the tour for less than $1,000, below cost price according to multiple industry sources.
Guides working for the low-cost agencies are being told to make up the shortfall by getting trekkers rescued by helicopter: one guide said on condition of anonymity that he was given a quota for the number of trekkers he should have “rescued”.
“The industry thrives on these unnecessary rescues,” added Suraj Paudyal, who coordinates helicopter rescues for Mediciti Hospital in Kathmandu.
Some hospitals back in Kathmandu even have a stake in the rescue business. Company registration documents show that many large trekking outfits have financial ties to hospitals and helicopter providers, creating a conflict of interest.
Ram Sapkota of Himalayan Social Journey said his guides received a commission from some hospitals if they take a tourist there, saying he allowed it because his company needed to “maintain relations” with medical providers.
He also bought a 10 per cent stake in helicopter firm Altitude Air last year, he said.
Nepal’s tourism ministry launched an investigation into alleged insurance fraud in early June after receiving complaints from multiple sources, joint secretary Ghanashyam Upadhyaya said.
“The investigation might take [another] month. When we began our work we did not realise the magnitude of the problem,” Upadhyaya said.