--BY TAMISH GIRI
On May 7, Kami Rita Sherpa reached the summit of Mt Everest for the 25th time, breaking his 2019 record of conquering the world’s highest peak for the 24th time. Similarly, a 16-member team from Bahrain ascended Mt Manaslu, the world’s eighth highest peak, last autumn. For this spring climbing season, the Department of Tourism (DoT) issued 408 expedition permits to 43 teams for Mt Everest which is 21 more than in 2019. Despite the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic which has gripped Nepal for over the last two months, the mountain expedition permits issued for this year are the highest on record.
The department received a total of USD 4.1 million in royalty from Mt Everest expedition permits, which is slightly higher than what was generated from the entire expedition season of 2019 (USD 4.05 million). This growth has brought about a sense of optimism among tourism entrepreneurs who expect more climbers and expeditioners from across the world to arrive to summit the majestic peaks of Nepal in the coming autumn.
According to mountaineering analysts, the ascent of Mt. Manaslu by the Bahraini team headed by Prince Mohamed Hamad Mohamed Al Khalifa last year has proven instrumental in promoting Nepal as a safe destination amid the pandemic. “At a time when tourism activities came to a grinding halt as countries imposed strict restrictions in travel and transportation, the Bahraini expedition became big news globally and that has encouraged mountaineers from across the world to visit the Himalayan nation for expedition activities this spring season,” says Jinesh Sidhurakar, former chief administrative officer (CAO) of Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA).
According to Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of Asian Trekking and former chairman of NMA, the rise in the number of climbers is also due to restrictions placed in expedition activities in Tibet. “This number increased also because most visiting climbers who had booked expedition packages in 2020 were here this spring,” he informs.
In Nepal, mountain expeditions are conducted in three climbing seasons in spring, autumn and winter every year. The spring season lasts from March to April, autumn from September to November and winter from December to January. The royalty for an expedition is determined according to the season and the route climbers choose to ascent the mountain peaks. Foreign mountaineers willing to scale Mt Everest in the spring season are required to pay a royalty of USD 11,000 per climber. The amount is reduced to USD 5,500 in the autumn season. Similarly, a royalty of USD 1,800 per climber is charged for expeditions to mountains above 8,000 metres during spring, while it is USD 900 for autumn. However, April, May and October are popular for mountain climbing in Nepal. “The climbing conditions in the Himalayas are considered better in Spring than Autumn. This is why a vast majority of Mt Everest expeditions are organised in May,” says Sidhurakar.
The northern territory of the country houses many of the world’s highest peaks. However, only the Khumbu and Annapurna regions have been attracting climbers and other visitors in satisfactory numbers, say mountaineering entrepreneurs. According to Sherpa, more than half of the climbers in this spring season applied for Mt Everest expeditions while many other mountains have remained unclimbed. According to DoT a total of 742 mountaineers applied to climb 16 mountains and 408 received permits for scaling Mt Everest, 125 for Lhotse, 44 for Annapurna I and 38 for Nuptse. Likewise, permits were also issued for Tengangpoche, AmaDablam, BarunTse, Dhaulagiri, HimlungHimal, Makalu, Mustang Himal, Pumori, Saribung, Tilicho and Tikuche. In 2019, DoT issued 407 permits for AmaDablam, 393 for Everest in the Khumbu range and 269 for Makalu.
According to DoT, Seven Summit Treks, an expedition agency, received the highest number of permits for 10 teams for Mt Everest in the spring climbing season.
Migma Sherpa, chairman of Seven Summit Treks, informs that his agency provided services to 130 foreigners to climb Mt Everest in this year’s spring season. “In the 2019 season, we had around 90 foreign mountaineers climbing Mt Everest and other major peaks. However, the number of mountaineers climbing other mountains was less compared to Mt Everest this year,” he says, adding, “Only around 70 climbers climbed peaks including Ama Dablam and BarunTse this year. This number was around 140 in the spring of 2019.”
DoT provides permits to climb Nepal’s 414 peaks that are either opened for Nepali expeditions or joint expeditions of Nepali and foreign teams. Likewise, the department has authorised NMA to issue climbing permits for 27 medium and small-size mountains. However, 86 of these mountains have remained unclimbed till date, according to DoT.
Mountain tourism is a crucial part of the Nepali tourism economy. It supports the livelihoods of a diverse group of people from the mountainous regions. Past studies have shown that each tourist arriving in Nepal provides employment opportunities to around six individuals. “Tourists coming for mountain expeditions add to the income of hoteliers, potters, mountain guides, travel agencies, aviation and transportation service providers, local farmers and contribute to the government’s revenue,” says Sherpa. According to him, besides climbing mountains, the summiteers also go for sightseeing and refreshment activities depending on their time and schedule. Sherpa says that a foreign mountaineer visiting Nepal for a Mt Everest expedition in the spring climbing season spends around USD 40,000-60,000 and their average length of stay in the country is around 60 days.
However, even with the increase in the number of mountaineers this year, tourism businesses and hotels in the Khumbu region haven’t been able to recover the losses from Covid-19 restrictions of last year when mountaineering permits were not issued. “Even though the number of expeditioners in this year’s spring season is encouraging, it is simply insufficient for hoteliers to keep their businesses afloat,” says Sherpa. According to him, tourism and hospitality businesses in the region mostly depend on trekkers who visit in large numbers than mountaineers. “Unfortunately, the region has not received trekkers for the last one year,” he mentions. Asian Trekking runs a chain of Himalayan Eco Resorts in the Khumbu region situated in Khumjung, Lobuche, Gokyo and Phakding. In 2019 around 57,000 trekkers visited the region, boosting the business of the hotels. “There are more than 800 hotels and lodges in the Khumbu region. But just around 700 trekkers visited the region in the spring season,” says Sherpa.
While the government has announced measures to support the pandemic-stricken tourism sector through the federal budget for FY2021/22, mountain tourism stakeholders are doubtful about the implementation of the programmes. Given the current situation and fears of new waves of the Covid-19 pandemic coupled with the sluggish vaccination drive in the country, many think the resumption of normalcy in the tourism sector is still 3 years away as many foreigners will avoid visiting Nepal until the pandemic subsides.
On the other hand, some entrepreneurs also express optimism that autumn will see more foreigners visiting Nepal for expeditions as the immunisation process is moving faster across the world. “The spring season has indicated that more mountaineers and trekkers will visit the country. It will present an opportunity for us to capitalise and to work for the recovery of tourism in Nepal overall,” says Migma Sherpa.