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The transformation of tourism

Posted by: AMY SELLMYER | Date: January 23, 2011

Roads have the potential to completely transform the land they cut through. Often welcomed by celebrations at the hopes of expected prosperity and modernity, they are heralded as vehicles for development.

Along with the introduction of new roads come many things: easier access to goods as well as markets for local residents. This influx of new goods brings the conveniences of modern technology as well—something everybody is entitled to. But in some cases, this modernity, if not skilfully managed, can kill some of the rustic charm of hiking through the valleys of Nepal that so many tourists look for.

The road that cuts into the steep valley lining the Kali Gandaki River has taken years to construct.  And as the portion that overlaps the eastern half of the Annapurna Circuit trek stretching from Pokhara to Muktinath nears its completion, the number of vehicles is increasingly matching or exceeding the number of trekkers hiking along the trail. Constructed on top of the traditional trekking route, it forces tourists looking for clear views of the magnificent peaks of the Annapurna range to peer through a filter of fumes and dust from passing jeeps, buses and Lorries. One can only imagine how this traffic will be compounded should the road reach its intended destination, meeting a corresponding road at the Chinese border and becoming a busy avenue of transit between the two countries.

Aside from crossing the Thorang La pass, the Annapurna Circuit trek—among the more popular trekking choices—has never been hailed as a technically difficult one, especially after reaching that climax and hiking down the second half of the trek towards Muktinath. Instead of challenging trekkers with the rigorous climbs and descents that are a daily feature on other treks, the Annapurna Circuit trek has offered hikers a glimpse of the diversity of cultures and landscapes that outline the Annapurna range. This is something trekkers of all ages, experienced and inexperienced alike, are known to enjoy. This increase of access into the nation’s iconic tourism destinations has presented both challenges and opportunities for private tour operators: though private revenue has slowed for these more popular areas, the roads have also opened up possibilities for trekkers still seeking a unique experience.

“The traditional tea-house trekking tourism industry as we know it is fading,” says Kazi Thapa, owner of Kazi Outdoors. The reasons for this are multifold. As information about Nepal and its vast network of trails increasingly abounds, there is a decreasing need for independent and self-reliant tourists to seek help from the nation’s trekking and tourism experts.

In addition to efforts by the government to develop the infrastructure within the parks, of which trails through the Annapurna range have received particular attention, with the help of the internet, it is now possible for tourists to relieve any anxiety or insecurities they may have had about hitting the trails without the aid of knowledgeable locals. “It is probably more common now to see tourists travelling individually (without guides) to places like Annapurna and Langtang. It’s as easy for them as getting on Google and searching for other travellers’ experiences,” says Thapa.

The increasing ease of access to both information and trails in popular parks has called on the private tourism industry to innovate in order to continue turning a profit. It is now the onus of tourism entrepreneurs to offer visitors something they aren’t able to obtain easily on their own—something that has resulted in an increase in niche and adventure tourism. More and more tourists are looking for new places and means to explore. From more remote destinations to different modes of travel, private tour operators are expanding their repertoire. 

Private tour operators have begun to focus their efforts on more remote places like Rara Lake, Simikot and Upper Dolpa. But these more remote trips come with a price tag. Not only are the routes less established—without the conveniences of tea houses and hotels, treks involve more planning and greater organisation—acquiring permits from the government for these regions is also more expensive, something Thapa says poses challenges in convincing tourists to explore these pristine areas.

“For many travellers, it often comes down to the value for their money. Because of the restriction permit system in addition to the extra money needed to organise properly, only a few tourists with a little more money or a particular interest come to these treks.”

The issue of access will always generate debate and controversy. Whether it be in the construction of a new road or setting the price of permits to restrict an area, there is a fine line between giving locals the development they are entitled to and preserving indigenous cultures and the environment. 

But according to Laxman Gautam, manager of public relations at Nepal Tourism Board, for some of these restricted areas, the original motivation behind restricting tourists are now antiquated. For areas like Upper Dolpa and Upper Mustang, the cost of permits was set high to control movement of people around the Tibet border. “The original restrictions were put into place because of border sensitivity. But Tibet is already open to all international visitors; this is something our organisation is lobbying for here as well.”

In addition to new areas, tour operators are also increasing the modes of activity available to visitors. In the ever-changing context, “we can only survive on traditional attractions for so long; we have to explore other options,” says Gautam. Which has given rise to greater promotion of activities like kayaking and mountain biking by private tour companies as well as a growing number of motorised off-road vehicles. But for many tour operators, the high taxes levied on the equipment needed to support these types of activities make pursuing these alternatives less appealing.

Though these new ventures may be at odds with conventional concepts of tourism in Nepal, looking forward, these new areas being explored as a result of ever-increasing access are an important part of the development of the tourism industry.

“In order to bring in more tourists, increasing access is important,” says Thapa. But in order for private tour operators to survive, he feels there is a need for the government to look beyond their current concept of tourism—something “focused on drums and banners, not on actual infrastructure.”

 

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