Budget climbing on its way out, cried a headline in the Himalayan Times recently, one of Nepal’s top daily newspapers. Ever since it opened its doors to tourism in 1950 Nepal has been a popular destination for mountaineering, not just because of its breathtaking mountains, but because it has always been a relatively cheap holiday destination. Yet despite having the 2nd lowest cost of living of any country in the world (according to this infographic based on data from the Consumer Price Index) prices have risen significantly to the extent that it can no longer be consider a cheap destination for mountaineering. In this post I try to understand why it’s become so expensive, examine how Nepal compares with other mountainous holiday destinations, and make some predictions about its mountaineering future.
Although the Himalayan Times article presents confusing arguments from mountaineering operators, it seems that two major tragedies last year have caused the Nepali government to introduce new rules which will increase red tape and prices for future expeditions. My thanks to Rajan Pokhrel of the Himalayan Times and Siling Ghale of trekking agency The Responsible Travellers for confirming some of the details for me.
The avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall last April which killed 16 Nepalis and caused my own expedition to be abandoned focused a lot of attention on the life insurance cover for Sherpas and other mountaineering workers. At the time the maximum amount Nepalese insurance companies paid to victims’ families was $10,000 USD. This has since been increased to $15,000 and is now mandatory. In addition to this, operators now have to provide cover of $10,000 for search and rescue and $7,000 in medical fees. The cover is also mandatory, and more significantly it applies to all expeditions, whether they be to climb Everest, another expedition peak, or one of the cheaper NMA trekking peaks such as Mera or Island Peak. While this rule is likely to increase the cost of some expeditions, IMHO it should have been mandatory long before. In reality more reputable operators have already been providing this cover, certainly on the bigger peaks. If operators choose to pass on these additional costs to their clients, responsibility lies with them rather than the Nepalese government.
The second rule change is more controversial, and seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to blizzards in the Annapurna region last October which killed 39 trekkers and their staff in a series of incidents. Many of the fatalities were preventable had people been aware of the weather forecast and/or not pressed on in deteriorating conditions. Despite the fact that many trekking staff perished with the trekkers they were leading, some of the blame was apportioned to unaccompanied tourists completing their treks without Nepali staff. Until recently, it was mandatory to employ a guide for NMA trekking peaks, and this rule has now been extended to expedition peaks. There has also been talk of making it compulsory to employ at least two guides or climbing Sherpas, but currently this proposal is still under discussion. How these rule changes will prevent accidents to trekkers on the Annapurna Circuit is puzzling.
While larger expedition teams employ many staff, the new and proposed rules will make a difference to smaller, lightweight expeditions, particularly those of alpinists who climb as a rope team, with no need to employ climbing staff. While I’m no alpinist, three of my previous expeditions to Nepal were independently organised with my then climbing partner Mark Dickson. I very much enjoyed these small expeditions, and only time will tell whether they remain financially viable in future.
Even without these new rules I’ve been aware of the gradual price increase in Nepal over a number of years, but I didn’t think much about it until last year. Inflation occurs everywhere, after all, but last April I was forced to take notice after paying $20,000 USD for an expedition to Lhotse which was abandoned halfway through because of a labour dispute in the aftermath of the avalanche. With pressure on to pay staff in full for the season and compensate families, and supplies strewn all the way up to Camp 2 in the Western Cwm, few of us got a penny back from what we paid, other than through insurance policies. But one thing we could be easily compensated for (or so it seemed) was our permit fee which hadn’t been used. At various times over the last year there has been talk of waiving the permit fee should any 2014 Everest or Lhotse climbers return in the next five years. But this won’t happen in time for anyone who wishes to climb in 2015, and the latest development is that a decision has been referred to parliament for debate.
I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but this means a decision is about as likely as Switzerland no longer being a tax haven for crooks. Here’s what happened last month when Nepal’s parliament met to discuss a constitution, something rather more important than Everest permit fees, which the country’s people have been waiting for since 2008.
I’m understandably slightly resentful, and have no plans to return to Lhotse unless my permit fee is waived. Despite this I still returned to Nepal in October to climb Cholatse, but my 4 week expedition ended up costing me four times as much as a 3 week mountaineering trip to Peru in July. Although I’m not comparing like with like, with such significant price differences and some equally beautiful mountains in other places, I would be a fool not to reconsider my choice of regular holiday destination.
Treks and smaller peaks
With this in mind I did a quick-and-dirty comparison of the trip prices of a number of popular mountaineering and adventure travel companies from the UK, US, Australia and New Zealand (with apologies to my bilingual readers who travel with operators from other countries). The aim of the comparison is to see how Nepal’s prices compare with those of other countries. I’ve picked out one other Himalayan country (India) and two in the Andes (Peru and Ecuador). There are of course other competitors to Nepal, and I spend a lot of time dreaming about trips to them too, but the table only has so many columns.
This comparison has a number of flaws (which you’re welcome to highlight in the comments if you can provide me with some useful information in exchange). In addition to comparing apples with oranges, there are many factors affecting trip prices besides the destination country. For example, how remote is the location and how complicated are the logistics to get there? How technical is the peak, and are any provisions such as fixed ropes provided? How much is the permit fee? Despite these questions, this is exactly the sort of price comparison we consumers do all the time when flicking through websites to choose our next holiday, so IMHO it’s perfectly valid.
I’ve converted all prices into US dollars. While the new rules will primarily affect mountaineering, I have also examined how prices compare for trekking.
|4 week mountaineering expedition|
|Adventure Consultants||$12500 (Ama Dablam)||N/A||$8400 (Alpamayo & Artesonraju)||N/A|
|Alpine Ascents||$13500 (Ama Dablam)||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Jagged Globe||$6550 (Ama Dablam)||$5700 (Kun)||N/A||N/A|
|KE Adventure||$3900 (Mera & Island)||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|World Expeditions||$4350 (Mera & Island)||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|3 week mountaineering expedition|
|Adventure Consultants||$4900 (Island Peak)||N/A||$5950 (Alpamayo)||N/A|
|Alpine Ascents||$4900 (Island Peak)||N/A||$4600 (Peaks of Peru)||N/A|
|Jagged Globe||$3200 (Island Peak)||$3200 (Lungser Kangri)||$4250 (Alpamayo)||N/A|
|KE Adventure||$3200 (Island Peak)||$3050 (Mentok Kangri)||$3800 (Cordillera Blanca)||N/A|
|World Expeditions||$3800 (Island Peak)||$3050 (3 Peaks of Ladakh)||N/A||N/A|
|2 week mountaineering expedition|
|Adventure Consultants||N/A||N/A||N/A||$3650 (Ecuador Volcanoes)|
|Alpine Ascents||N/A||N/A||$4000 (Shorter Peaks of Peru)||$3800 (Ecuador Volcanoes)|
|Jagged Globe||N/A||$2500 (Stok Kangri)||N/A||$2900 (Ecuador Volcanoes)|
|KE Adventure||$3000 (Tent Peak)||N/A||N/A||$2750 (Ecuador Volcanoes)|
|World Expeditions||N/A||$2550 (Stok Kangri)||N/A||$3050 (Ecuador Volcanoes)|
|3 week trek|
|Adventure Consultants||$4100 (Everest Base Camp)||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|Alpine Ascents||$4250 (Everest Base Camp)||$6000 (Nanda Devi)||N/A||N/A|
|Jagged Globe||$2500 (Everest Base Camp)||N/A||$2750 (Huayhuash Circuit)||N/A|
|KE Adventure||$2450 (Ultimate Everest)||$2600 (Kangchenjunga)||$3050 (Huayhuash Circuit)||N/A|
|World Expeditions||$2600 (Everest & Cho La)||$2900 (Zanzkar Traverse)||$2950 (Huayhuash Circuit)||N/A|
|2 week trek|
|Alpine Ascents||N/A||$5300 (Nubra Valley)||$5700 (Macchu Picchu)||N/A|
|Jagged Globe||N/A||N/A||$2150 (Santa Cruz)||$2450 (Ecuador Explorer)|
|KE Adventure||$1800 (Annapurna Sanctuary)||$1750 (Nanda Devi)||$2600 (Cordillera Blanca)||$2000 (Avenue of the Volcanoes)|
|World Expeditions||$1800 (Annapurna Sanctuary)||$2000 (Markha Valley)||$2900 (Alpamayo Circuit)||N/A|
If nothing else the price comparison gives a clear answer to one question: why I’ve never considered climbing with Adventure Consultants or Alpine Ascents.
Although this rough comparison doesn’t tell us much, the figures suggest that while it’s not significantly cheaper than other destinations, Nepal still compares favourably. For many people the choice between Himalayas and Andes will be dictated more by trip length (3-4 weeks vs. 2-3 weeks) than price, and as long as Nepal’s inflationary trend doesn’t continue, climbers and trekkers will still be drawn there in preference to other destinations.
But there is one other important consideration. This is a comparison of commercial tour operators, and we know little about their profit margins (although the eye-watering prices of two of them suggest margins must be quite healthy). Given my experience last year I suspect operators may be running at much lower profit margins in Nepal than they are in South America. While Nepal remains attractive to commercial clients, at least for now, it may be less so for operators, who not only earn less, but have extra paperwork to complete with all the new rules.
What applies to operators applies equally to those who climb and trek independently, and it is these people the Nepalese authorities need to be wary of driving away. This is short sighted. The Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA) and the Ministry of Tourism seem to be perpetually at loggerheads about mountaineering policy, but both are keen to spread tourism around by attracting climbers to lesser known peaks. Recently they released permits for over 100 new peaks, but the people most likely to apply for these are simultaneously having their hands tied a little more tightly.
The 8000m peaks
So much for treks and smaller mountains, how about the big 8000ers? Nepal has only two competitors here: Pakistan and Tibet, and both have been beset by political problems of their own in recent years. Pakistan has major issues with religious intolerance which spill over into tourism from time to time, most dramatically with the massacre of 11 mountaineers on Nanga Parbat in 2013. It also has a far less developed tourist infrastructure than Nepal. Tibet is much better in this respect, with tight regulation and services provided by the China Tibet Mountaineering Association. But mountaineering constitutes only a drop in the ocean of China’s foreign income, and they can easily do without it. At best the Chinese government doesn’t give a toss about attracting foreign mountaineers to its 8000m peaks; at worst its paranoia about freedom of speech in Tibet causes it to positively discourage them. Twice in recent years (2008 and 2012) uncertainty over foreign visas and permit fees caused expedition operators to switch their expeditions en masse from Cho Oyu in Tibet to Manaslu in Nepal, and in 2008 the north side of Everest was closed completely to foreigners while they took the Olympic torch to the summit in secret.
I haven’t done a comparison table for 8000m peaks like I have for treks and smaller peaks. In the first place there isn’t much choice, and operators differ widely in the services they provide and prices. In many cases prices vary hugely even among operators who provide the same level of service, so a comparison tells us even less. One operator who has switched to the north side of Everest after last year’s tragic debâcle on the south, Alpenglow, charges prices which make Adventure Consultants seem like Poundland. This is hardly going to make climbers travel to Tibet on the basis of price.
In short, with the exception of Cho Oyu, Nepal still remains the destination for anyone wishing to climb an 8000m peak, and I don’t see this changing soon. While this may seem reassuring to those who work in Nepal’s tourism industry, in reality the government’s chaotic tourism policies are almost certainly costing them money.
As for me, many of my trips to Nepal in recent years have not been in a commercial group. I hope the small independent expeditions to the trekking peaks that I have enjoyed with Mark do not become prohibitively expensive, otherwise perhaps I will be returning more often to Peru.
I’ll finish on a lighter note, with a short video of what happened the last time the NMA and Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism met to discuss permit fees.