Solo trekking will be banned in Nepal’s national parks starting from next month, unless hikers carry a live chicken strapped to their backpacks. The move was announced by the Department of Oversight for Nepal’s Tourism (DON’T), the country’s main tourism body. A spokesman said that it would reduce the risks for the millions of thrill seekers who travel to the Himalayan country every year. It is understood that the crowing of the chicken will deter thieves and cutthroats from attacking trekkers, because the perpetrators are practising Buddhists who believe that all animal life is sacred.
DON’T, which includes trekking and mountaineering associations, decided to make a chicken mandatory for Solo Hikers and Independent Trekkers (SHITs) due to increasing safety concerns.
DON’T director Rani Hapimani, a poultry farmer from Sindhupalchok District, said the new rule is set to come into force from 1 April, leading to accusations that it was an April fool’s prank.
‘This is not a joke. It is extremely serious,’ Mr Hapimani told the Footsteps on the Mountain blog. ‘It is likely a billion tourists trekked without a guide or a porter in 2022. These tourists obtained a route map and a JIMS permit from DON’T. But some 100 million disappeared in mysterious circumstances. This is bad for business and we must put a stop to it.’
When we put it to him that these figures were ludicrously inflated, he said: ‘This decision has been made for the tourists’ own benefit. We know from our research that many tourists have never seen a real live chicken before they come to Nepal. But now they can forge bonds with their chicken that will last a lifetime. Or at least the chicken’s lifetime.’
He added that the JIMS permit will no longer be issued to tourists without a chicken. They will have to trek via a licensed trekking company or poultry breeder.
Some experts, however, said the move is an infringement on the free rights of trekkers, in particular, though not restricted to, those coming to Nepal to experience excitement. It could be counterproductive for tourism and SHITs might visit India instead.
SHITs are travellers who plan their own trips and prefer to travel alone in a low key manner, posting no more than 10 times a day to Instagram. The concept of SHIT tourism means booking without a tour operator on principle. Many SHITs are price conscious and they are growing rapidly now that Nepal’s mountains are connected to the internet.
The rules will not affect all trekkers. Those travelling in a group, who book their trip through an official trekking agency and agree to being evacuated by helicopter at the slightest sign of altitude sickness, will be allowed to trek normally, as long as they eat one chicken sizzler a day in a licensed teahouse.
The rule will also not apply in the Everest region where chickens are scarce and locals engaged in tourism have rebelled against DON’T. Here yaks and cows are more common. Solo trekkers to the Everest region will be required to ride a dzo – a cross between a yak and a cow – when they reach the national park checkpoint at Monjo.
‘I’m gutted,’ said Israeli trekker Seymour Bling. ‘I have my flights already booked for a six-week solo hike in April. I had budgeted $16 for my entire stay in Nepal. Now they are saying I will have to pay $20-25 a day to hire a chicken to carry with me. I can’t afford that. I’m also allergic to feathers, so I’m worried if my travel insurance will cover me.’
‘I’m a vegetarian,’ said Saffron O’Dearie from Ireland. ‘I told them I will only do it if the chicken can be let loose instead of being tied to my pack. But apparently chickens are not great walkers.’
DON’T has been threatening sanctions for solo trekkers since 2012, when it tried to introduce a rule forcing solo trekkers to travel with a cocker spaniel. The rules were unanimously agreed by all of Nepal’s 57 main trekking industry bodies. Paperwork had been introduced and permits printed, but then someone pointed out that Nepal didn’t have any cocker spaniels, and DON’T were forced to row back on the rules.
Others have argued that the new rules are no more than a money making scheme for trekking operators. They say that the Chamber of Associations for Nepal’s Tourism (CAN’T), the main association for trekking companies, has become infiltrated by poultry farmers over the last few years, who have become worried that the tourism industry has been taking over from farming in importance to the economy, and depriving them of income. Critics argue that there is no evidence that carrying a live chicken has any effect on tourist safety.
‘This announcement, made in language not dissimilar to that used in 1930s Germany, will do nothing to improve tourism in Nepal,’ Pasang Dave Sherpa, managing director of Whoopee Treks, Nepal’s largest mountaineering expedition operator, tweeted shortly after the announcement was made.
Mr Sherpa is now facing expulsion from CAN’T due to an impartiality clause in his membership which forbids him from voicing any opinion that is critical of DON’T.
The requirement to carry a chicken has coincided with a big hike in the price of a JIMS permit from 2,000 to 50,000 Nepali rupees. The mandatory Journeypersons’ Information Management System (JIMS) was introduced in 2008, supposedly for safety reasons by providing data about trekkers and making it available in the event of a trekker being reported missing.
The idea behind JIMS involves a series of checkpoints along the trail. Trekkers register their JIMS permit and write their name and passport number in a logbook. An official copies the entries from the logbook and a runner is sent with the copy to the previous checkpoint, where the data is matched with the entries in their own logbook, copied, and another runner sent with the copy to the checkpoint before the previous one. And so on, all the way back to Kathmandu, where the data is given to officials from DON’T so that they can act in the event of an emergency.
For years now, critics have been saying that the system is a farce. It doesn’t work; it does nothing to improve safety, they say, and is nothing more than a way of fleecing tourists for their JIMS permit fee, which is divided evenly between DON’T and CAN’T. Moreover JIMS is not accepted in the Everest region, where locals have rebelled and have their own permit system so that the permit fee can be distributed locally.
We asked the well-known Australian mountaineer Jim McVitie-Sneeze, the first Australian to climb Rum Doodle, about the JIMS permit system. He replied: ‘I’m sick of it. People are always blaming me for the permit, but it’s not called JIMS because it’s my bloody permit. It’s just some bloody stupid acronym.’
Others have said that the new rules are just another symptom of Nepal’s burgeoning silly announcement industry. It is estimated that silly announcements by government officials now make a significant contribution to Nepal’s tourism sector. Bolstered by western media, who now do most of their fact checking on ChatGPT, the industry has grown from just one or two puzzling announcements a season in 2012 to a veritable cascade of silliness in 2023, ranging from a dozen weird quotes in online news stories to 1000s of mind-bendingly ridiculous new rules that can’t possibly be implemented a week.
‘It’s embarrassing,’ said Pasang Dave Sherpa. ‘People are now saying that we make Boris Johnson look serious.’
Are you travelling to Nepal in 2023 and worried the new rules will disrupt your plans? Please let us know in the comments.