The Covid-19 Pandemic Complicates Tourism in the Everest Region

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic are limitless, reaching even the most remote corners of the Earth, including the Everest region, where the virus is inflicting cascading impacts upon mountain tourism and local well-being. 

There exists a tiny airport at Lukla, a small town high in Nepal’s Himalayas, where tens of thousands of tourists come each year to begin their trek to the Everest base camp and who then go on to explore one of the world’s most iconic mountain ranges. Tourism is a huge source of revenue for this region. In 2018, about 1.2 million tourists visited Nepal, generating over $620 million for the country. Jiban Ghimire, a Kathmandu-based tour operator of Shangri-La Nepal TrekOne, told National Geographic that one tourist to Nepal supports eleven families, and Everest mountaineers alone contribute more than $300 million a year to the economy. But the airport has recently fallen silent.

Lukla Airport, 2,845 m. Credit: Graeme/Flickr

In January, the government of Nepal created the Visit Nepal 2020 initiative. Devoted to bolstering tourism to the country, its goal was to attract two million visitors this year. But with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, tourism in the Everest region has taken a drastic hit. To keep both tourists and their own people safe, the government of Nepal decided in mid-March to cancel all trekking and climbing permits, suspending the flow of tourists to the airport which normally receives 60 flights per day during peak season (autumn).

Mingma Sherpa, director of Nepal’s Seven Summit Treks, told The Guardian: “No doubt our business will suffer, but who will be responsible if the virus spreads on the mountain? The mountain is not moving anywhere. People can come and climb next year.” However, porters, guides, and guesthouse owners are experiencing great troubles with the halt in income. Lhakpa Tshiring Sherpa, who manages Lukla’s Hiker’s Inn, told The Guardian, “Everyone is suffering, but for hoteliers, it’s been a double hit. We stockpile everything in advance as it is very costly to buy and transport foodstuffs during the peak season. It’s cost me a fortune. What do I do with it now?”

This majestic range of the Nepal Himalayas overlooks picturesque valleys and Sherpa villages. Credit: TheBluesDude/Flickr

Nepal has closed its borders, shut down international travel, issued stay-at-home orders, and postponed the Visit Nepal 2020 promotion. Consequences are profound.

Kathryn March

Kathryn March is a Graduate Professor of Anthropology and Professor Emerita of Feminist/Gender/Sexuality Studies and Public Affairs at Cornell University. Since 1973 she has worked and even spent time living with indigenous Tibeto-origin peoples in the Himalayas––such as the Sherpa and Tamang––on questions of gender, social justice and change. She told GlacierHub in an email, “You have to understand how precarious the Nepalese economy already is.”

Since the Middle Ages, Nepal has been dependent on subsistence agriculture and trade. During European colonization, Nepal remained independent and isolated. “By the time of Indian independence and the Cold War, Nepal’s backwardness seemed quaint and, even, romantic. Efforts at economic and political development were, however, largely unsuccessful and Nepal entered the 21st century in a crisis,” March wrote. She explained that today’s statistics do not fairly represent “the stagnation of the agricultural sector, the absence of other meaningful sectors, and the dependence upon foreign employment.” 

“In this context, tourism is an extremely attractive option,” March wrote. She noted that tourism, most notably high-end mountaineering, generally benefits the tourism middle-men and seldom benefits local economies. Local cooperative and community-based eco-tourism, which March advocates for, barely occurs. “In general, decision-making and profits stay closer to the top of that pyramid, both internationally and at the capitol city,” March wrote; “…Nevertheless, in the absence of other local opportunities, [tourism] is very appealing.”

Farming downstream the Himalayas is dependent on the water supply originating in the high mountain glaciers. Credit: GRID Arendal/Flickr

While tourists are a huge source of revenue to the region, they also bring with them obstacles like overcrowding, trash and pollution. Just last year, several climbers died on their trek up Mount Everest as hours-long waits caused them to endure hazardous conditions. These conditions sparked debate on whether timetables or other restrictions should be created to limit the number of climbers and increase safety. Overcrowding also threatens the safety of the guides.

Moreover, as more infrastructure is built in the region to handle the increasing capacity of tourists, the pristine nature of the mountains is becoming ever more endangered. In 2016, China built a road that winds 4,200 meters up the slope of Mount Everest to the base camp. Bloomberg wrote, “What’s bad for Nepal will likely turn out to be a boon for tourists. Instead of fencing off Everest as a pristine wilderness, much as the U.S. has done with its national parks, China is approaching the Himalayas as the Europeans have the Alps.” This new “gateway to the Himalayas” only adds to the overcrowding, trash and pollution issues.

Overcrowding on Everest. Credit: CBC News: The National/YouTube

With the onset of the pandemic, the tourist-based income to the region fell sharply, but some of the problems obviously receded as well. Now, there is less risk for guides as no treks are being taken, there is less pollution and no overcrowding because tourists have fled. However, it is not a permanent solution. The same problems will return when the pandemic is over unless revisions to the current tourism industry are made. 

Mount Everest isn’t the only landmark that had, until the recent pandemic, seen an increase in tourism. Because most tourism to Nepal occurs in the spring and autumn when the weather is better for mountaineering and sightseeing, Visit Nepal 2020 wanted to explore ways to also attract visitors in the winter when numbers typically fall. With the theme of #Nepalforallseasons, the campaign landed on the idea of hosting open lake sports, as this is popular in the Western World. 

However, opening new spaces to tourism brings cultural tensions between those who wish to increase tourism revenue and those who wish to protect their sacred, cultural sites. 

At an average altitude of 4,700 meters above sea level, the Gokyo Lakes form the world’s highest freshwater lake system. Its six main pools are located in northeastern Nepal, in the snow-capped mountains of Sagarmatha (the Nepali name for “Everest”) National Park, which is also home to four of the world’s seven highest mountains, including Mount Everest. The lakes are fed by meltwater from the Ngozumpa glacier, the longest glacier in the Himalayas. In 2007, the Gokyo Lakes and their surrounding thirty-square-miles of wetlands were classified as a Ramsar site of international importance due to their pristine condition and the habitat they provide for rare species of flora and fauna. 

On Valentines’ Day, Gokyo Lake III near Nepal’s Everest Base Camp was the site of a sensational sporting event hosted by Visit Nepal 2020, a governmental initiative devoted to bolstering tourism to Nepal. The event was directed toward winter enthusiasts and included a friendly ice hockey match and ice skating performances from international athletes, including former olympians from the US, Canada, India, and Russia. 

Pre-event advertisement of an athlete playing hockey on the sacred Gokyo Lake. Credit: Visit Nepal 2020

Not everyone was on board with this campaign. In a February 25 article Aljazeera wrote, “as figure skaters jumped and twirled in midair, the audience hooted in delight, oblivious to the chaos behind the scenes.” The event was criticized by the indigenous Sherpa community because the six Gokyo Lakes, of which this one is a part, are deeply sacred to the Buddhists and Hindus alike. 

In the Himalayas, high altitude lakes and glacial lakes are usually seen as sacred spots where religious people of different faiths, including many shamans, can go and have a direct connection with the gods. They believe that, like the mountains, the lake is home to spiritual beings, and they make regular offerings to these beings. If these places are disrespected and polluted, either spiritually or physically, it is thought that trouble will come to the village. 

Dr. Lhakpa Norbu Sherpa, a retired researcher at Sagarmatha National Park and indigenous of the region, stated in a Facebook post: “Development of additional infrastructure and services associated with active sports will threaten the integrity of the Ramsar Site which is already suffering from visual and sewage pollution. Why can’t we save the few natural areas in our country as national heritage where the norms of ‘take only photographs and leave only footprints’ would continue to apply?”

Gokyo Lake V, Nepal. Credit: Sebastian Preußer/Flickr

“The Western Tamang communities — of Rasuwa, Nuwakot, & Dhading — as well as the Sherpa communities of Solu that I know best have long and often troubled relations as minority Buddhist populations in a dominant Hindu state history,” March wrote. Much of the nation’s funds go toward Hindu projects, “even though Buddhist sites in Nepal such as Lumbini, where the historical Buddha was born, have considerable tourist and pilgrimage potential, in addition to their importance to Nepalese Buddhists.” 

“In general,” March added, “especially with the resurgent interest in Buddhism in major tourist-sending countries such as China, Japan, Taiwan, Europe, and the US, it has been my experience that tourism often provides much-needed income for Buddhist sites, as long as the tourists know that they are important sites. Therein lies the rub, of course. Many local sacred sites are not apparent to the tourists who pass through, so they get used as campsites or toilet sites, which is clearly not appropriate.”

The question is how to integrate tourism in these areas in a way that is culturally sensitive. The temporary removal of tourists due to the pandemic may offer a much-needed chance for Nepalese tourist communities to regroup and reimagine their unique enterprise. 

 US Figure Skater Laura Kottlowski practicing before the event on Gokyo Lake, 15,720 ft.

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