Sustainable tourism development is always a challenge, and it becomes even more complex when a natural disaster devastates communities and disrupts the flow of travel. Wouter Schalken, tourism development expert at the Samarth Nepal Market Development Programme, explores the scope of tourism in Nepal — past, present and hopeful future.
Sustainability is in danger.
How did you first get involved in the tourism industry?
I grew up on a hunting farm in the private tourism sector and I figured out early on that while I don’t really like tourists, I like the phenomenon of tourism. I find it intriguing. However, I still have doubts on whether anyone can really “plan” tourism or whether it’s an out-of-control phenomenon that we’re riding.
What were some of your earlier roles in terms of development?
I have a very strong background in Africa. I’ve been involved in the early stages of ensuring that communities are meaningful beneficiaries and participants in tourism efforts. We’re moving away from “booze and blankets” deals and becoming an integral part of conserving resources — both natural and cultural — as well as gaining from it.
What exactly were those “booze and blanket” deals?
That was the way deals were struck to get a foothold into a nice place. Early lodge developers went into rural areas and basically paid off the local authority with minimum requirements.
Have we fully moved away from that?
Even now, with formalized partnerships and concession rights that are owned and operated by communities, there isn’t necessarily a communal benefit. There are challenges around disbursement of funds and transparency of benefits. Amazing progress has been made, but we’re not there yet.
Are you seeing these challenges in Nepal?
Nepal has seen a very passive involvement in tourism. If you’re not portering, guiding or providing a homestay, you’re not necessarily benefiting from tourism. We want to give them more control.
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What are some general solutions?
The shift is trying to move control from Kathmandu-based trekking operators toward the actual destination areas: various sections of the Great Himalaya Trails, national parks, conservation areas. That is one of the key requirements for proper tourism growth in Nepal.
What’s driving this movement in Nepal?
Sustainability is in danger. Nepal is one of the few countries that have seen a sharp decline in average daily spend per visitor. In Nepal, you can get away with bargaining your way on a daily basis — whether it’s accommodations, meals, a porter, a guide — which is rooted in the lack of control by these entrepreneurs over their destiny.
So local operators are undercutting each other?
We’re basically conforming ourselves to the image that Nepal is a cheap backpacking destination. We see this shift in a low-value model that keeps on reducing itself in value. It’s based on experience, but there is no investment made in enterprises or skills development.
Does this have an effect on the types of travelers who come to Nepal?
People who have money to spare find their Himalayan experience in Bhutan, for example. But based on the resources available — in terms of biodiversity, cultural diversity — Nepal has the track record. Where else can you go to see rhinos and tigers and have an 8,000-meter peak as your backdrop? That should be a lot more valuable than is currently being captured by Nepal.
What is Nepal missing that Bhutan is not?
It’s the quality of the product offerings. For example, we don’t have any properly accredited luxury brands that operate properties in Nepal.
Are you looking to diversify the types of industry among Nepalese locals?
We’re emphasizing the improvement of quality. Under the brand of Great Himalaya Trails, we want to make sure there are certain standards for certification, and then they can charge justifiably higher rates. We’re willing to go quite far in this: providing training and offering loans to improve physical elements.
If we want to elevate the quality of tourism and get out of that negative spiral of cheaper options and reduced spending, we have to start somewhere.
Your job must have changed drastically after the earthquake in 2014.
It has impacted the priorities. We want people to come to Nepal because the attractions merit a visit, not because of sympathy after the earthquake. People need to put the images of collapsed buildings and livelihood out of their heads and start focusing again on appealing resources that this country has. You can’t really rush that.
What kind of messages are you sharing to bring travelers back to Nepal?
If we don’t give content to the message that you can come to Nepal because it’s safe, the message is a bit weak. Giving content to the message means: come to Nepal now because we have a safe tracking system that allows you to be monitored; we have shelters constructed according to earthquake-resistant methods; helipads are within a half-hour walk. There are always risks to coming to Nepal, but there are certain systems that can mitigate the effects of that.
Are there longer-term strategies for tourism efforts?
People who want to climb Everest will come anyway. But we have to get away from those classic 20-day, circuit hiking trips in which you stay in a different accommodation every night. The growth markets, especially the Chinese, aren’t interested and they don’t have enough time for it. We need more hub-and-spoke systems to keep people in one place for longer periods. Getting volume and making sure people stay longer requires corridors, circuit and developments. We’re in between India and China and we have this amazing opportunity to capture both of those markets, but we don’t offer the right products for it. It’s very hard to convince Nepalese that we need to do something different.
What’s holding them back?
A lot of people inherited businesses from their pioneering parents from back in the mountaineering days, in the 1970s and 1980s. They’re taking over without setting objectives of their own targets to capture the market that’s currently out there.
Are there opportunities for people who are interested in hiking, but not necessarily 20 days at a time?
We’re doing what we refer to as “hazard mapping” all of the destination areas. You might choose a trekking area that has road access within 30 minutes maximum, where your cell phone has coverage, and with fixed accommodations. If you’re willing to take a little bit more risk, you might go farther out — you may get more rewards as you get away from other people, but you might be 40 minutes away from road access, have 80 percent coverage on your cell phone, and go camping for two nights. That’s the kind of development that Nepal needs to address, and we’re working on improving it.
What about people who aren’t necessarily interested in hiking?
Within Great Himalaya Trails, we refer to a “Network of Extraordinary Journeys.” You can do yoga, drink tea, ride a mountain bike, go for a trail run, photograph snow leopards. Everybody is looking for a different experience, and Nepal has the ideal location and setting for all of those.
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