With the spring trekking season in Nepal nearly upon us, and record numbers of visitors expected in the country for the second successive season, some people are beginning to question the impact of tourist numbers on this small developing Himalayan country, and asking whether some of its prime tourist destinations are still what they used to be.
Chief among these is the classic Annapurna Circuit trek, a three week ramble round the world’s tenth highest mountain, which passes through a number of different climate zones along the way, from humid jungle, to alpine pine forests, rhododendron-clad moorland, and the high altitude desert of the Tibetan plateau. For many years it has been a ‘must-see’ destination for trekkers and backpackers, as popular as the Everest Base Camp trek, and regularly featuring on seasoned travellers’ ‘things to do before you die’ lists.
In recent years increased tourist numbers have led to crowded trails and pressure on accommodation in the many trekking lodges along the route. Even more disappointing for trekkers hoping for a wilderness experience is the gradual extending of roads from both ends of the trail, along the Kali Gandaki gorge up the western end to Muktinath, and through the jungles and forests of the eastern end to Manang. My friends at the not-for-profit tour operator The Responsible Travellers recently modified their Annapurna Circuit itinerary after feedback from clients that their stay in Tatopani, previously an idyllic stop beside hot springs, had been somewhat marred by a dozen tourist jeeps revving their engines and beeping horns outside their lodge at 6am. One travel blogger was so disappointed by his experience to go so far as suggesting that tourism is bad for Nepal and ruining the country!
But jaundiced views about the state of tourism in any country can easily be acquired when you confine yourself to its most popular destinations. Fighting with thousands of other sightseers to see exhibits on a busy Saturday in the British Museum doesn’t tell you a great deal about the average museum experience in the UK. Neither does getting hassled by hawkers flogging nick-nacks in the markets of Marrakesh tell you anything at all about the generous gallons of complimentary mint tea and friendly smiles you’re likely to receive in a remote village in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains.
It’s really a question of expectations. Let’s be clear on one thing: the Annapurna Circuit is not a true wilderness experience. Apart from the crossing of the Thorong La pass, the Circuit’s highest point, you’re not going to walk for longer than an hour without coming across a village with tourist lodges. Even before the road was built, both sides of the circuit were accessible by air, via the airstrip at Humde on the Manang side, and Jomsom airport and Muktinath helipad on the Kali Gandaki side. I remember being frustrated by the number of motorbikes haring up the Kali Gandaki gorge when I walked the Annapurna Circuit in 2006. This was before the road had been completed, and the bikes had been brought in by helicopter and were proving extremely popular. I had an equally frustrating time stuck behind queues of trekkers on a busy trail in the Marsyangdi gorge in 2008. The scenery, on the other hand, is spectacular, as it all over Nepal.
The question of whether tourism is bad for Nepal is an equally easy one to answer. The country is a fledgling democracy which has recently deposed its monarchy after a period of terrorist insurgency. Its people are among the poorest in the world in terms of income per capita, and there is still a great deal of instability while they wrestle with their newly-acquired democratic freedom. But it does possess vast natural wealth in the form of its scenery, the highest and most beautiful mountains in the world, and tourism forms a significant portion of its foreign income. The roads to Manang and Muktinath have not been built to transport hordes of tourists into the mountains as some people believe, although they can certainly benefit from it, but to allow local traders to bring apples, oranges, wheat and tsampa to the markets of Pokhara, the nearest town, in a matter of hours rather than days. Of course, tourism has to be expanded sensitively and responsibly, but citizens of a fledgling democracy have a right to modernise and improve their standard of living just as we do.
But these advances need not mean the end of trekking in the Annapurna region. Trails nearby have been opened up. Upper Mustang, the Naar and Phu valleys, and the Manaslu Circuit, are just three examples of trails imaginative trekkers have started visiting. Manang, on the northern side of the Annapurna Circuit, is the sort of place you could easily spend a week or two, exploring Milarepa’s Cave, where the famous 9th century Buddhist poet spent years meditating, visiting the ancient monastery at Braga, watching a horse race through the streets of Manang, making a day trip up to the Ice Lake above Braga for a spectacular view of the Annapurnas, or taking a more extended multi-day trip to Tilicho Lake, allegedly the highest in the world.
Perhaps the ‘must-see’ lists of travel blogs and magazines are partly to blame. What a waste for your travels in Nepal to be just an exercise in box ticking off the world’s top travel destinations! There’s oh so much more to trekking in Nepal than Everest Base Camp and the Annapurna Circuit. The Responsible Travellers is just one of a clutch of innovative tour operators offering trips to some of Nepal’s off-the-beaten-track destinations to offer a better wilderness experience to trekkers, take travellers away from the tourist hotspots and enable villagers in other parts of Nepal to reap the benefits of tourism. The Tamang Heritage Trail is one particularly successful example of this. The Great Himalaya Trail is another initiative to introduce little known parts of this beautiful country to the outside world, and the Australian tour operator World Expeditions should be commended for making the brave step of offering this most spectacular of long distance trails in its entirety.
It’s not Nepal or the Annapurna Circuit that’s the problem. It’s we, the tourists. We need to throw our ‘100 Places to Visit Before You Die’ books into the recycle bin and start being more imaginative with our holiday destinations.