If we take the successful ascent of Mt Everest back in 1953 as the beginning point of tourism in Nepal, our tourism industry is already six decades old. Nepal’s tourism industry has seen many ups and downs over these sixty years. New destinations have been identified, explored and promoted and new tourism activities started in the country. Though tourism in Nepal started with mountaineering, it started growing as an industry after trekking was started here in the early 1960s. Trekking that began from the Everest region gradually expanded to other areas like Annapurna, Langtang, Kanchanjunga and Gaurishankar area among others. Unfortunately, trekking activities are limited to these areas till now. Other areas like Upper Mustang, Dolpo and Manaslu, which are equally rich in terms of tourism attractions, have not been able to get desired benefits from tourism because they have been declared as ‘restricted areas’ by the government. This means the Upper Manaslu area gets only a few hundreds of visitors compared to more than 100,000 that Annapurna Region receives every year.
The government has declared villages bordering Tibet in 13 districts – Taplejung, Sankhuwasabha, Solukhumbu, Dolakha, Rasuwa, Gorkha, Mustang, Manang, Dolpa, Mugu, Humla, Bajhang and Darchula – as restricted areas. Foreigners should get special permits from the Department of Immigration to travel to these areas. Also, permits are not given to individual trekkers. Only the trekkers travelling in group through a government-authorized trekking agency can apply for the permit. Permit fee ranges from US$10 per week to as high as $500 for 10 days depending on areas. As if it were not enough, trekkers have to go through lengthy administrative procedures to get the permits.
The government imposed restriction on movement of foreigners in some northern VDCs bordering Tibet Autonomous Region of China after Khampa rebels used Nepali territory to wage armed war against Chinese authorities in 1970. Prior to that, foreigners could travel to any parts of the country. The government deployed military to get rid of the Khampa rebels. To bring Khamba rebels under its control and disarm them, the army had completely restricted movement of foreigners in VDCs bordering Tibet. By 1974, the military became successful in completely disarming the Khampa rebels. However, even after the disarmament of Khampa rebels the government didn’t allow foreigners to visit those places. Though some areas were opened through government decisions – mainly because of pressure put by people’s representatives — in the latter years, many areas are still facing travel restrictions. Later, the restrictions were softened as controlled areas. This means only the trekkers fulfilling special criteria prescribed by the government could travel to the areas in group by taking the service of government authorized trekking agencies. Also, they need to take special permits from the Department of Immigration, which is time consuming and full of administrative hassles.
Of the controlled areas, trekking entrepreneurs say uppers parts of Kanchanjunga and Makalu Region, Nar and Phu in Manang, Upper Mansaslu in Gorkha, Lo Manthang in Mustang, and Upper and Lower Dolpo in Dolpa hold immense potential for tourism development. These areas are rich in ancient culture and tradition, boast of beautiful landscapes and are home to different ethnic groups practicing Buddhism or Bon religions. Despite having immense tourism potentials, people there have not been able to reap benefits from tourism industry. At a time when people in, say Everest and Annapurna regions, are getting lots of benefits from tourism, its utterly difficult for the people in restricted areas to make ends meet. This is happening because of the government policy. It’s a great injustice to them.
The main argument behind imposing restriction on such areas is security. The government fought Khampa rebels, who were waging war against the Chinese government, to please China. The restrictions might have been necessary during the war. As the Khampa rebels were tamed in 1974 itself, it is an impractical decision to continue travel restrictions. At a time when China is allowing free movement of tourists in Tibet, there is no reason why Nepal should control movement of foreign visitors in its territory, depriving people of the benefits from tourism. The other argument is uncontrolled flow of visitors might affect timeless culture and tradition of people living in those areas. This argument is also hollow as lots of Chinese are bringing in supplies, including beer and fast food items, in big trucks to Lo Manthang. Had the government been serious about preserving culture and tradition and people living in northern areas, it would have barred flow of Chinese from Tibet as well. Also it won’t be justifiable to deprive people of the benefits of tourism in the name of protecting culture and tradition. The government should find separate ways to preserve culture and tradition in those areas.
Purna Chandra Bhattarai, chief of Tourism Industry Division under the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, said time has come to review travel restrictions imposed by the government on some areas. “At a time when people in other parts of the country are getting benefits from free flow of foreign tourists, we can’t deprive people in some areas of those benefits,” he said. He further added that private sector, especially the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN), has also been lobbying to open restricted areas.
As the restrictions are imposed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, Bhattarai said the tourism ministry has already forwarded the file regarding the issue to the Ministry of Home Affairs. “I am hopeful that the home ministry will take a decision to this effect very soon,” added Bhattarai.
Mahendra Singh Thapa, president of Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN), which has been lobbying hard to lift travel restriction, said the government is hesitating to lift the restriction as it fears it will affect revenue collection from those areas. “This is a wrong argument. On contrary, revenue will increase if permit fee is brought down as more people will visit the area,” Thapa said, adding, “Increased flow of tourists will also bring about socio-economic changes in those areas.”
According to Thapa, majority of people in Upper Mustang do not have dependable source of income. “As agriculture yields can’t support them for the whole year, many go to work in Tibet. We can change the situation by increasing the flow of tourists there,” Thapa said adding that only a handful of people in Upper Mustang – mostly those belonging to the Bista royal family – want travel restrictions to stay because they have good hotels and are getting good business.
“Upper Manaslu can be a good alternative to the world famous Annapurna Region where trekking routes are losing charm with the advent of motorable roads. Similarly, we can operate trekking even in monsoon if Dolpo and Upper Mustang as opened as they lie in rain shadow area,” Thapa explained.
Thapa, who also runs Equator Expeditions, said the government has been failing to open restricted areas even though ministers, secretaries and even leaders of political parties are positive to it. “Former Home Minister Bhim Rawal was very positive about opening restricted areas. But the government changed before Rawal could take a decision,” Thapa said, adding, “Former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, who is also from Gorkha, had even directed his home minister Bijay Kumar Gachchhadar to lift restrictions. But Cachchhadar denied.” He, however, is hopeful that the incumbent home minister Madhav Prasad Ghimire would take a decision to this effect. “He knows the issue well. I am hopeful that he would take a positive decision on the issue,” said Thapa.
Ang Tshering Sherpa, former president of Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), is also surprised by the delay in opening restricted areas. “Prime Minister, Home Minister and Tourism Minister as well as leaders of different political parties are positive about opening restricted areas. Still they can’t take any decision,” Sherpa said, adding, “I have started to suspect that some invisible hands are behind it.” Sherpa, who is also the honorary member of UIAA, feels tourism can help a lot to uplift socio economic status of people living in those areas. “People in restricted are very poor compared to other areas in the country. We can provide them alternative source for income generation by taking tourists there,” Sherpa said, adding, “For that to happen, the government should open restricted areas.”
He further added that opening of new areas will offer something new to foreign tourists. “More than 43 percent of tourists visiting Nepal are the repeated visitors. We cannot off them Everest, Annapurna of Langtang all the times,” Sherpa said, emphasizing the need to open restricted areas. He further added that it will help retain foreign tourists who are diverting to other destinations like Ladakh. “Because of high permit fee and administrative hassles here, tourists interested to visit Upper Mustang have started to visit Ladakh in Tibet. It is high time we stopped them,” he added.
Chudamani Sharma, joint secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs, said discussions were underway regarding restricted areas. “We have received a file from the tourism ministry regarding restricted areas. We will take decision after studying factors like security issues and available infrastructures and holding discussions with the concerned stakeholders,” he said. He, however, refused to say when travel restrictions would be eased on those areas.