Wasted opportunity in tourismThe Nepal government has currently designated different regions across 13 northern districts as ‘restricted areas’, for which trekking groups (one cannot travel individually) have to pay a varying range of fees to the Immigration Department.
Amish Raj Mulmi
I am outside the famous Shiza Dzong caves in Chhosar village. These are among the famous ‘sky caves’ spread across Mustang, some at least 2,000 years old. Archaeologists are said to have discovered ‘a wealth of artifacts, including intact silk fabric, bronze jewelry, and bamboo baskets still full of rice among skeletons of people’ among these caves. Unfortunately, none of this information is available in Chhosar. The woman-caretaker who opens the caves for me says she’s only recently come here, so she has very little idea about the history behind the caves. I am taken to a chamber where several pottery samples are kept inside a glass box, but that’s about it. A boy who is taking me around on his motorcycle says that these caves were built as a shelter during the wars with Tibet, a claim that is later dismissed by another local.
In Jomsom, the Mustang Eco Museum that is supposed to display some of the artifacts from these caves remains closed for the three days I am in town. My hotel owner tells me it’s been shut for a while. As I stand below the steps that lead to a museum with locked doors, I remember American-Nigerian writer Teju Cole’s words: ‘A phrase I hear often in Nigeria is idea l’a need. It means “all we need is the general idea or concept”… It is a way of saying: that’s good enough, there’s no need to get bogged down in details.’
Nothing describes the Nepali approach to tourism better. We’ve a general idea in our minds that tourists like Nepal because of its unique landscapes and cultures. That’s been good enough for us; there’s little we’ve thought about beyond that. We proceed on the assumption that tourists can, and will, pay more for services—hence the higher bus or air fare, and hotel rates—but we don’t want to get bogged down by providing the services meriting the high costs of travelling here.
Consider the $500 Restricted Area Permit (RAP) foreigners have to pay in upper Mustang. The Nepal government has currently designated different regions across 13 northern districts as ‘restricted areas’, for which trekking groups (one cannot travel individually) have to pay a varying range of fees to the Immigration Department. This is excluding any local fees, such as the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) fees in Mustang. The RAP had been implemented once tourism opened in these areas in the 1990s from a security perspective, after Tibetan rebels were active in some of these districts in the 1970s, including Mustang, hence the permits falling under the purview of the immigration department of the Home Ministry. There is another view, that the fragile Himalayan environment in these remote regions cannot withstand mass tourism, hence the continued implementation of the expensive permits.
In Upper Mustang, the RAP makes for an expensive proposition that does not deliver on its promises. In 2017, of the 52,475 foreign tourists who visited Mustang, 4,115 individuals went on to Upper Mustang. Assuming each of these travellers paid the RAP fee, it amounts to a total revenue of at least $2 million, or nearly Rs200 million at current exchange rates. One would expect such a sum would translate to better services—at least some information about cultural sites, better maps, and an open museum—for visitors. But none of this is visible.
The Lo Manthang rural municipality website does not have the details for any of its expenses or incomes, but a 2010 essay by an anthropologist suggests Kathmandu had promised to allocate at least 60 percent of the permit fees to local authorities, while ACAP would ‘plan for and monitor tourism’ in Upper Mustang. ‘[I]n 1993 the government allocated 30 percent of royalties to ACAP. From 1994 to 2007 no funds were released to local or district level authorities.’ Then in 2008 and 2009, the government released the 30 percent royalties from the preceding 13 years only to the Mustang district development committee, which then allocated the funds to the 16 erstwhile village development committees. In 2010, the local youth society threatened to shut down tourism in the region if the promised 60 percent of royalties were not delivered to the district.
It is not known whether the funds were delivered as promised. When I spoke with local authorities, they had little knowledge of what happens with the RAP fees. If Chhosar’s sky caves are devoid of any information about their history, there isn’t any information in and around Lo Manthang’s famous walled city either. None of the monasteries I visited in Upper Mustang displayed even so much as a board that told the visitor of its historical or cultural relevance. The trekking trail, now overshadowed by a dirt track that is the Kali Gandaki Corridor, has few markers pointing the way, except in the villages. At one spot near Kagbeni, the trail marker had dropped to the ground after the daily afternoon gusts of wind that come in from the south. I walked with an English cyclist who wanted to take an alternate road to Marpha from Jomsom; I had to interpret for him along the way in the absence of maps. This, in what is perhaps Nepal’s most popular Himalayan region after Solukhumbu.
In my conversations with local hotel owners, the frustration towards government authorities is apparent. All of them agree the road, even if it is a dirt track at present, has made life easier for them, even if it affects the trekking tourist. But, they say, the government has done little for them. One points to a charging unit that provides electricity via a solar power plant installed by the Chinese government four years ago. The ‘national pride’ project that is the Kali Gandaki Corridor linking Upper Mustang to Pokhara is still years away from completion, despite tall claims of work moving ahead ‘swiftly’.
Whether the RAP is still required in a district like Mustang is questionable itself, which in any case will be open to the world after the Kali Gandaki corridor is operational. Also, if security were the reasoning behind the continued practice, couldn’t a foreign spy afford the necessary fees to travel to these regions? And finally, if environmental degradation is the larger worry, a highway with cargo traffic running on it will cause far greater devastation than an increased number of tourists. There were discussions, allegedly, during the tenure of a former chief secretary about removing the RAP. But there was no headway. As recently as 2017, then tourism minister Jeevan Bahadur Shahi said the government ‘was planning to open parts of restricted areas to foreign tourists in a bid to raise tourism revenues’. But neither the promised tourism infrastructure development, nor the cancellation of RAP fees, has happened.
Now, as the district prepares itself for large-scale commercial and passenger traffic, it makes little sense to continue with the RAP. There has been little transparency in how the funds have been used, and few signs royalties have been shared with the locals. Instead, there is a need to enrich the travel experience in a culturally rich and environmentally sensitive landscape like Mustang—knowledgeable guides, a waste management system, new trekking trails that steer clear of the road, adequate and updated information about tangible and intangible heritage, etc.—to create a template for tourism in the future.
That tourism still holds great potential in Nepal is a much-touted idea. However, there is little evidence that our tourism-wallahs think of travel beyond the generic model of ‘oh-look-here’s-a-great-landscape’. In Lo Manthang, where the surreal landscape blends with the history of a unique Tibetan kingdom, the tourist has little idea of the archaeological heritage of the walled city. One learns little about Dakmar, the famous cliffs which the guru Padmasambhava is said to have splashed red with the blood of demons he slayed, or Tsarang, said to house the greatest library in all of Mustang. By all standards, Lo Manthang should qualify for world heritage status; but beyond the extraction of monies from travellers, there has been little thought put to what makes a place more than just a destination.