TWO years after the Gorkha earthquake brought devastation to the area, countries like Nepal are keen to encourage tourists to visit the Himalayas. But could this be a double-edged sword for a region characterized by its biodiversity and cultural heritage?
Stretching 2,400km, the Himalayas pass through five nations: India, Nepal, Bhutan, Pakistan and China. It is an environment that varies considerably, from tropical in its lower regions to snow covered at its peaks. It features many lakes, rivers, glaciers and of course 10 of the world’s highest mountains making it a playground for explorers and adventure sports enthusiasts.
But it is also a sacred place with connections to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Ancient sites like shrines, temples, pagodas and monasteries are dotted throughout the area. Some are particularly remote, such as the Rongbuk Monastery at the base of Mount Everest.
With much to offer and despite the ongoing repair work following the 2015 earthquake, the Himalayas draw large numbers of tourists – something that has a positive impact on the economies of these countries.
In Nepal, promoted as the “gateway to the Himalaya,” the total contribution of travel and tourism to GDP in 2016 was NPR177 billion (US$1.6 billion). This is expected to rise by 6.2 percent by the end of 2017. The sector also directly supports 427,000 jobs, which should grow to 604,000 this year.
Elsewhere, communities in Bhutan are benefiting from the introduction of a minimum daily package charge, paid per night by each visitor. It includes a sustainable development fee of US$65 which is used to fund infrastructure projects and key services like healthcare and education.
However, although tourism is helping to improve the quality of life for many people by contributing to the alleviation of poverty and social inequality, as well as encouraging modernization, it is not without its problems.
In the Sagarmatha National Park in the Himalayas of Eastern Nepal, rising visitor numbers are creating a myriad of environmental issues –something echoed in many areas in the region.
Among the largest of these is the threat to its delicate ecosystem from increased footfall, illegal trails, resort development and tree felling for firewood. As such, the flora and natural habitats of native species like musk deer and red pandas may be at risk, despite conservation efforts.
At Mount Everest in the Mahalangur section of the Himalayas and at other high elevations, waste removal is a particular challenge. But it isn’t just rubbish littering these sites. Discarded tents, oxygen tanks, and even human excrement are a substantial blight. Although initiatives are in place to manage the problem, they are notoriously difficult to implement and enforce in such remote areas.
Beyond ecological threats, the erosion of cultural practices and values are a growing concern. In an article for The Guardian, Lam Richen, a yak herder in Bhutan explained: “I am happy for people to come here, to show them my culture … but the risk is that if more tourists come, then people here might want a different culture to the one they already have.”
The jobs created by tourism growth could also contribute to the loss of a traditional way of life. Younger generations are leaving their villages to take up these new roles, permanently altering their communities.
To tackle the problem, the Bhutanese government have drafted an Intangible Cultural Heritage Bill to protect its traditions as well as the sacred sites and monuments. As tourism increases here and throughout the Himalayas, measures like this will be essential if what makes these areas unique is to be preserved.