Yankila Sherpa is among the pioneering women in Nepal’s trekking sector. Sherpa opened Snow Leopard Treks in the 1980s, about a decade after working in another company where she gained valuable knowledge about the country’s tourism sector. She is also the former president of Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN). She talked to New Business Age on various aspects of Nepali tourism industry and women entrepreneurship. Excerpts:
How were your childhood days?
I spent my childhood days in Olangchung Gola of Taplejung until I was 9 years old. I studied in a government school. However, as I was weak in the Nepali language, I went to Darjeeling after studying at Sharda Balika School in Dharan for 5-6 months. I studied there for a year and a half. Then I came back to Kathmandu and studied at St. Mary's School.
I used to go to my birthplace once a year for a two-month vacation. It took about a month to travel to the village and come back, as we had to walk all the way from Dharan. This allowed me to gain knowledge about eastern Nepal even at a young age.
Please tell us about your professional career?
Being involved in the tourism sector, I had the opportunity to learn and understand many things through my association with the Women Entrepreneurs Association of Nepal and the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN). During that time, there were very few women involved in this field. Before starting my own company, I worked at Yeti Travels for 10-11 years in the 1980s, where I gained knowledge and experience in various aspects of tourism. Yeti Travels was owned by the then royal family, and I started there at an ordinary officer level, eventually reaching the executive level.
After my tenure at Yeti Travels, I opened Snow Leopard Treks with the help of my relatives. It was during this time that I joined TAAN. Subsequently, I got the opportunity to study in the US through the women's association, where I learned a lot about Nepali tourism. Later, I became the vice president of TAAN and eventually its president.
Back then, we took pleasure in welcoming tourists, but we were not fully aware of the impact of tourist activities on the Himalayas and mountain areas. Garbage management in trekking areas was a problem. During my studies in the US, a professor showed me a documentary highlighting the environmental risks posed by the disposal of bottles and waste in the Everest region. This led me to initiate a discussion on eco-tourism within TAAN. We conducted meaningful eco-trekking workshops annually and received support for sustainable tourism development from foreign organisations.
Furthermore, I served as an executive member and chief advisor to the Nepal Mountaineering Association. The eco-friendly trekking activities of Snow Leopard Treks contributed to increased business. Interestingly, foreigners have shown more interest in protecting Nepal's Himalayan environment than Nepalis. This positive shift resulted in better management of trekking areas, including controlling activities like tree felling, and the emergence of eco-friendly hotels and lodges. However, there is still much work to be done to ensure sustainable tourism development.
I was also a member of the Women's Entrepreneurs Association. Shyambadan Shrestha provided significant support during my tenure in charge of the microcredit division. This role granted me the opportunity to visit Indonesia and Italy to learn about microcredit and witness the support given to women entrepreneurs in those countries. I also had the privilege of observing how tribal women conduct business in Indonesia and Malaysia.
You have also received national and international awards for your contribution to this field. Do you think your activities are recognised more by foreigners?
Even if you do good work, it is not easy to gain respect in Nepal. Often, to receive an award, you need to have connections with individuals in positions of power. Unfortunately, I couldn't establish such connections, which resulted in not receiving any awards through those channels. However, I did receive the 'Abraham Conservation Award' from the World Wildlife Fund, which was bestowed upon my company, Snow Leopard Treks. This recognition was a great honour. Additionally, I was privileged to be recognised as the best woman entrepreneur by the Worldwide Federation of Women Entrepreneurs during an international conference held in Delhi, India.
You must have worked hard in the struggle phase, don’t you?
When I was the president of TAAN, men in subordinate positions tended to undermine me. They attempted to weaken my leadership, but I chose to ignore them. Instead, I focused on working diligently in accordance with the association's guidelines. My team and I placed strong emphasis on promoting environmentally friendly tourism in Nepal. We actively took delegations to various offices and even visited Sikkim to gain insights into their practices. Surprisingly, we discovered that they were lagging behind us in this regard. Some members of my team were not supportive of my idea to promote eco-friendly trails. Nevertheless, I remained determined to pursue this vision and continued my efforts.
What are the challenges that Nepal’s trekking and mountain tourism are facing?
Now, roads and road facilities have reached every corner. Infrastructure has been built, or is currently in the process of being built. However, the development of infrastructure has posed challenges to environmental protection and sustainable tourism promotion, which is a matter of concern. For instance, in and around the Kathmandu Valley, there are numerous tourist spots. Regrettably, in the name of development, machines have been used in an unplanned manner, resulting in an unsightly appearance for the city. Land plotting and unmanaged urbanisation have only exacerbated the situation, making these areas unappealing to tourists.
Another concerning issue is that road construction has caused damage to some of our beautiful trails. This has not only impacted the tourism business in those regions but also invited environmental consequences. As trekking trails are shortened, people are losing their jobs, and local lodge owners are experiencing a decline in business. The government needs to address this crisis seriously, as the trekking industry contributes significantly to the economy. Measures should be taken to preserve and maintain these trails, which are vital for sustainable tourism and the livelihoods of the local communities.
What can be done to protect trekking?
While building roads, proper attention should be given to ensure that they do not damage the existing trekking trails. The government should adopt a development model that is mindful of preserving trekking routes while implementing infrastructure projects. Climate change and global warming pose significant challenges to the trekking industry. Our once snow-capped mountains are now turning into black rocks due to rapid snow melting. This is a direct consequence of climate change. The diminishing snowfall and the increased risk of glacial lake outburst floods are just a few examples of the impacts we are witnessing. The government and other stakeholders should proactively respond to these catastrophes.
Any concluding remarks?
One of the problems in developing women's entrepreneurship was that we trained and educated women, helping them become entrepreneurs, but we did not pay enough attention to the marketing of their products. Marketing the produced goods has proven to be a significant challenge. Not all women entrepreneurs are well-educated or possess extensive knowledge of marketing. Therefore, the state should provide support in managing the market for such women's products. Additionally, ensuring easy access to subsidised loans can be crucial in empowering women entrepreneurs and promoting their businesses. Furthermore, it is essential to encourage the use of our indigenous products. There are several areas that require attention and action for the development and expansion of women's entrepreneurship.