Visit Nepal is holding an ice skating event on Gokyo but it is unclear whether authorities have consentedThe event, slated for Friday, requires permission as Gokyo is a Ramsar site and part of Sagarmatha National Park, a World Heritage Site.
On Friday, Nepal will be hosting a friendly ice hockey match and ice skating event on the pristine Gokyo lake in the Everest region.
The event, the first of its kind in Nepal, is being organised as promotional activity for the ongoing Visit Nepal Year 2020 campaign. The hockey match and ice skating will feature international players, including former Olympians, from countries like Canada, Russia, India and the United States. Nepal hopes to set the world record for an ice hockey match at the highest altitude and inaugurate the world’s highest ice skating rink on frozen Gokyo.
Everything is all set, except for the permit.
Gokyo is inside the Sagarmatha National Park and as per the law, any activity inside the protected area requires permission from the Ministry of Forests and Environment.
According to Bishwambar Ghimire, programme coordinator of Visit Nepal Year 2020, they only applied for the permit a few days ago.
“We have taken permission from Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality. We have paid royalties to the park and taken gate entry permission as well,” Ghimire told the Post over the phone from Lukla. “Permission from the ministry will surely come by today as the ministry is well aware of the event.”
But Ganesh Ghimire, chief administrative officer of Khumbu Pasang Lhamu Rural Municipality in Solukhumbu, said that his office had no information about the event.
“They should have informed us. We have not received any official information,” said Ganesh Ghimire. “As this is the central government’s programme, we would have supported it but they should have coordinated with us.”
Bishwambar Ghimire, however, insisted that he had informed a ward chair and that permission had been given by the park to hold the event once.
According to Shyam Prakash Tamang, a park ranger, Sagarmatha National Park has granted permission to play games and to enter the park in lieu of royalties, but it never gave permission to fly a drone.
While Tamang said the organiser had permission for the sports event, the higher authority—the Ministry of Forest and Environment—told the Post that as of late Thursday evening, no permission had been given, only adding to the confusion and lack of coordination among these agencies.
“The ministry only received the letter a few days ago and we have not made a decision yet,” said Sindhu Prasad Dhungana, spokesperson for the ministry. “But it doesn’t seem possible to provide the permit by Friday.”
According to Dhungana, the event organisers have sought permission via the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation but Gopal Prakash Bhattarai, director-general of the department, told the Post that they had not been informed about the event so there was no question of permission being granted.
“The department should have been informed, even though the event is part of the tourism year,” said Bhattarai. “Maybe they were not aware of the rules. Lack of coordination might have caused the delay in applying for the permit.”
According to the organisers, the Visit Nepal Secretariat wants to promote winter tourism in Nepal as well as introduce figure skating and ice hockey.
“Through this event, we wanted to provide new tourism products for the off seasons and increase tourist flow during that period,” said Ghimire. “We need to develop winter sports so that we can extend tourist stay in Nepal. Also, our wetlands have not been promoted as tourism hotspots like in other countries.”
According to the organisers, Gokyo was selected for the event because it has all the required infrastructures like hotels and is easier to reach compared to other areas in the region.
However, permission is necessary for any such events, especially when the venue is a fragile ecological zone like Gokyo, which not only lies inside the core area of a national park, but is also a Ramsar Site. Sagarmatha National Park is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“For entry into the park, the central government or the park is responsible but when it comes to organising activities like skating or ice hockey on the lake, we should have been informed,” said Ganesh Ghimire, the local government officer.
Gokyo, and its associated lakes located at altitudes between 4,700m and 5000m in the high Himalayan region at the base of Cho Oyo peak, is among the country's 10 Ramsar sites. Any outside interference could affect the fragile local ecology, which supports a number of IUCN red listed vulnerable species, endemic flowering plants and many migratory birds. The lakes are also a significant source of water for downstream communities.
The ecological value of the site makes it crucial for the organisers to follow the due process, said Sonam Sherpa, president of the Sagarmatha National Park Buffer Zone Committee.
“As the event venue is inside the park, it comes under the jurisdiction of the park itself. So the event requires prior permission,” said Sherpa. “The event will promote adventure tourism in the area, but due process should be followed. While the government should promote new tourism sites, there should be a balance between tourism and nature conservation.”
Gokyo and adjoining areas, like other high altitude wetlands, already face various threats, including unmanaged grazing practices in the summer, potential for Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs), and increasing pollution, according to a 2010 study.
Environment ministry spokesperson Dhungana pointed out that although the Visit Nepal campaign is a government programme and should be promoted by all, it requires better coordination.
“We cannot proceed like this. We have to respect local ethos and local culture,” said Dhungana. “As the Sherpa community worships the lake, what if they do not allow the event to proceed tomorrow? Coordination among all levels is necessary.”
Gokyo lake is a sacred site for both Hindus and Buddhists. Every year, hundreds of Hindu devotees take a holy dip in the lake during Janai Purnima. Locals too maintain Buddhist creeds of causing “no harm” to the birds and animals in and around the lake.
Gokyo, situated at the base of Mt Everest, is one of the most popular tourist destinations leading to the Everest Base Camp. According to a WWF factsheet, tourism is one of the major sources of income for the local communities and an average of over 7,000 tourists visit Gokyo every year.
Dhungana said that the organisers should consider the cultural and environmental impacts of holding an ice skating event on a World Heritage Site and Ramsar site.
“Although there are no hard rules about organising events along Ramsar sites, there are some international obligations we need to follow,” said Dhungana. “This event will have international media coverage, which could cause the authorities to de-list Gokyo as a Ramsar site due to the event. Various surveys rate Nepal as a top destination for nature-based tourism. If we do not maintain the sanctity of these sites, such activities can backfire.”