Are the Peaks worth the Risk?
Tourism is perhaps one of the largest industries in Nepal and a significant source of foreign exchange and revenue for the country. That is why the Nepalese government declared 2011 as the Year of Tourism with the aim to bring in one million foreign tourists that year. The country is home to eight out of ten of the highest mountains in the world - Mount Everest being one of them. This makes Nepal an ideal destination for those who like trekking, mountain and rock climbing and adventure sports. In fact, of all the different kinds of tourism opportunities that Nepal offers, adventure and eco-tourism are a major attraction for visitors.
According to the Ministry of Tourism of Nepal, some of the main tourist attractions in the country are rock and mountain climbing, trekking, bird watching, para-gliding and hot-air ballooning over the Himalayas, rafting, kayaking or canoeing, mountain biking and jungle safaris, especially in the Terai region, to name a few. Sadly, however, the ministry has been unable to prevent mountain climbing accidents in the country. Some of the reasons for such eventualities are overcrowding and the failure to implement adequate safety measures for tourists.
Consider, for example, Martin Silagi's case. On May 14, 2013, Silagi, an Austrian tourist, fell almost 5,500 meters into a crevasse in the Himalayas while paragliding. Similarly, five people died in the same month when they slipped while climbing down Mount Kanchenjunga. Due to a significant increase in the number of accidents involving visitors, tourism has taken a dive in Nepal. People - particularly those who are interested in adventure sports and mountaineering - are reluctant to come to the country because of lack of implementation of safety measures by the government. According to rough estimates, Nepal attracted nearly 600,000 foreign tourists in 2012. Although it is a sizeable number, it is less than what the country's officials were hoping for. The Nepalese government is trying hard to attract new tourists, Indian and Chinese visitors being on the top of its list, even at the cost of its existing adventure tourists who comprise 40 percent of the market.
However, it has largely failed to provide a sound infrastructure to tourists. For one thing, international air connectivity to the country is poor. Only a few airlines are willing to fly to Nepal because of which ticket prices skyrocket during the peak traveling season. For an average tourist, going to Nepal can be an expensive proposition. The fact that the internal road connectivity is just as bad makes the situation even worse. Thus, the overall travel cost to and within Nepal can be unaffordable for many. Nepal's record in air safety does not help matters either. In the last two years, there have been six air crashes in the country, killing some 75 people. These factors force a large number of potential adventure tourists to look for other options.
Despite all this, Nepal's Ministry of Tourism is determined to open five new 8000-meter mountain peaks in the Himalayan range this year in the hope that it would encourage people to come to Nepal. This move comes amid growing concerns that Mount Everest has become severely overcrowded and dangerous for climbers.
In April 2013, three foreign mountaineers found themselves embroiled in a controversy following a clash with Sherpas, an ethnic group of people who live on the mountains. The Sherpas kicked them and threw stones at them, the mountaineers claimed. They said that the incident was a result of overcrowding and commercialization. According to them, feelings of resentment are growing against the increasing number of "luxury mountaineers" who are taken to the peaks in style by commercial expedition ventures. This has also led to dangerous delays and long queues, thus causing several deaths in the process. A case in point is the death of four climbers in 2012 who had to wait for hours to get to the summit because some 300 'luxury' climbers were passing at the time. In the wake of these incidents, the Nepalese government has set up a committee to resolve conflicts between climbers and Sherpas and to reduce delays during the peak climbing season (April-June).
Still, the tourism ministry has no plans to decrease the number of climbers on some 1,500 snow-covered peaks. In fact, it plans to open more peaks - many of them still unnamed - for tourists in the future.
"We have 1500 Himalayan mountains with snow coverage and only 326 of them are open. We have to open more mountains and now we are making a plan for that. We have many mountains over 8,000 meters. There are four at Kanchenjunga and it's similar at Lhotse," senior tourism official Mohan Krishna Sapkota is reported to have said recently. "You can't compare Everest to other mountains, but we want to provide an opportunity to mountaineers to climb new mountains. We are managing how we can make for safer climbing on Everest, but the new mountains are another issue. We are opening new tourism products for Nepal," he added. There is a need to ensure adequate safety measures for serious mountaineers before opening new peaks. The authorities concerned must make this a priority issue or else mountaineers will begin to think that the Everest is not worth the risk.
"Before I left for Everest, I said the danger was too many people on the mountain and accepted that as the main danger, I didn't think the main danger would be a mob of Sherpas throwing rocks," Jonathan Griffith, a British Alpine climber and photographer based in France told journalists recently. He was one of the three climbers who were attacked by Sherpas. This sentiment should be a matter of concern for the Nepalese government. It must take stock of the situation. Otherwise, the country stands to lose out on a huge chunk of revenue brought in by tourism.
Samina Wahid, Nepal's decision to open five new mountain peaks for tourists comes amid growing concerns that the Everest has become overcrowded and dangerous for climbers. Samina Wahid is a freelance journalist who contributes regularly to various publications.