Responsible trekking in Nepal

Nepal is a place of overriding beauty and calm but, as with anywhere, dig a little deeper and the same question will arise: at what price? Responsible tourism issues in Nepal are driven by poverty, a lack of education, and simple inefficiency when it comes to infrastructure. Much to the annoyance of purists, there are new roads making inlays into the Annapurna circuit, yet concomitantly, the existing roads are in an appalling state. Similarly, the more us tourists want to experience rural Himalayan life, the more growing wood the locals will chop and burn to keep us warm and fed.

Nepalís issues are clear-cut, but co-dependent and can therefore seem like vicious cycles Ė the hardest cycles to break. The rural Nepalese are a caring and spiritual people though who strive for positive changes, but who as yet lack enough understanding or support to implement them fully. Granted, tourism is not perfect and does cause damage, but there is real need for development especially in Nepalís rural areas and responsible, well-managed tourism is still one of the most central ways of lifting rural Nepalese out of poverty.

People & culture in Nepal

Porters' rights

Trekking is an exercise in spiritual wellbeing – simply knowing that all you have to do each day is wander a majestic landscape eases away the worries of everyday life, and there’s something about the serenity of the mountains that lends a wonderful sense of perspective and calm. But there’s also your kit to consider; carry an extra 15kg around on your back for a bit and you’ll soon feel it, only you don’t have to because your local porters will be the ones carrying it for you. It's tempting to think of your porters or guides as heroic individuals who can trek Everest Base Camp carrying two packs, while wearing flip flops and an old jumper, with no discomfort. Whilst many porters and guides do indeed have incredible strength and stamina, is it fair or responsible for tourists and tour companies to employ often impoverished local people in this way?

Yes and no. On the one hand, local guides and porters’ knowledge of the mountains is invaluable and they are, in the main, kind and courteous travel companions who will be interested to know more about you, and to share their culture and experience with you. Most importantly, income from your trek will provide income for their extended families.

Having said that, Nepalese porters have been found to suffer four times as many accidents as trekkers, according to Tourism Concern, and reports of porters being forced to carry up to 40kg are not uncommon. Reports of porters being abandoned by tour groups when they fall ill are not unusual and porters have even been abandoned in life-threatening blizzards while trekkers were rescued by helicopter. This is simply not acceptable. It’s easy to forget how fortunate we are in the western world with sick pay and incapacity benefit to fall back on, but if an overloaded porter in Nepal strains his back or gets frostbite he cannot work and if he cannot work, his family cannot eat.

What you can do
All tourists have a responsibility to make absolutely sure that the porters and guides accompanying them on their trek are not being taken advantage of. Ask your tour company if they have policies on porters' rights and working conditions, ensure that your porters have proper clothing and footwear and consider the amount of weight you porters are carrying - 25kg is a reasonable, but probably maximum load per person – do you really need that extra change of clothes?

Ask about porters' insurance and the provisions that are made for them should they fall ill or be injured, ensure that porters’ sleeping arrangements are comfortable and fair, and always make sure that your porters and guides are paid fairly. Enquire about and agree rates BEFORE you set off to avoid uncomfortable conversations at the end of your trek.

If you see or experience something that you feel uncomfortable about then make it clear to your tour company that this is not acceptable. You might also like to read our article about porters' rights when high altitude trekking. If you have any concerns please report them to us as soon as you return home.

Burning wood for fuel

Most rural households in Nepal use traditional stoves that burn biomass, mainly wood, for cooking and heating and the issue lies in where they collect their wood. Although thereís deadwood on the forest floor, a single trip can mean up to four hours collecting firewood and consequently hauling back a heavy load, so a lot of locals tend to chop down new trees for fuel, which are closer to home saving them both time and energy, especially during peak season when teahouses are particularly busy.

The Nepalese government is doing what it can to counteract the problem though and is making steps to educate the locals as to the danger and implications of deforestation by regulating some forests and introducing initiatives that give locals access to better, more efficient stoves. This is also helping to improve the health of Nepalís rural population by reducing indoor air pollution, a problem caused by the large amount of smoke thatís emitted from inefficient stoves and can lead to pneumonia and other acute respiratory infections.

What can we do?
Some literature will advise you not to stay at teahouses where people are burning wood to cook on, but thatís not realistic; in fact itís practically impossible because everyone is doing it. Unknowingly, we are part of the problem - the more of us that want to experience authentic Nepal, the further the locals have to walk to keep us warm and fed, but we are also part of the solution because households with access to an income brought in by tourists are more likely to invest in more efficient stoves. The best thing you can do is swat up on any local charity or government initiatives that you can become part of before, during or after your trip that are helping local households become more efficient in their wood-burning, and while your staying there, lend a hand by offering to join in on a deadwood collection.
Raj Gyawali, from our supplier Socialtours Nepal:
“More forests are becoming regulated in Nepal and the communities that live there are allowed to pick up fallen trees to burn. Burning wood, if you can reforest, is not such a bad thing because trees are at least renewable, fossil fuel is not. Better stoves are being introduced too, the Rocket Stove, which is made of iron, is a very efficient stove that has cut down household consumption of firewood by half, so reducing the time it takes to collect the wood too. Stoves like this have also helped to reduce the amount of smoke in rural households and the time it takes to cook food, which is benefitting the health of those that live there.”

Wildlife & environment


Despite a past blighted by large-scale forest clearing, which led to an increase in the number of landslides across Nepal and sizeable areas of national park being adversely affected, a significant reforestation effort has taken place across Nepal for a number of years. The biodiverse Nepalese landscape supports some of the highest population densities in the world – 81 percent of Nepal’s total population live in rural areas and 52 percent in the hills and mountains – and represents a clear, but sometimes complex co-dependence between people and nature; one that the government has made massive steps to ensure is successful.

Launched in 1986, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) is the first conservation area and largest protected area in Nepal. The area is home to over 100,000 residents of varied ethnicity and draws in over half of all Nepal’s total trekkers. The soaring number of visitors has heaped more pressure on forest resources already strained from the growing local population and ACAP’s goal is to achieve a sustainable balance between conservation and socio-economic improvements throughout the whole area. One hundred percent of the entry fee collected from visiting trekkers is ploughed back into conservation and development of the Annapurna conservation area.

In other areas of the country, a combination of plants and trees doing what they do best – growing, and tree planting has seen a big contribution to conservation, soil stabilisation and carbon sequestration in Nepal, especially across the middle hills and Terai plain, and has been invaluable to the Nepalese community who rely on the land for their farming systems and livelihoods. Much of this is down to the success and rapid expansion of the Community Forestry Program in Nepal, a participatory forest management system that was started in the 1990s and has seen upwards of 850,000 hectares of forest area handed over to 11,000 forest user groups from which they can generate income.

There have been sneers as to how much the program benefits locals living below the poverty line, but you could apply that rule of thumb to many different policies made in many different countries and the strength at which Nepal’s forest is bouncing back from constant strain speaks for itself.

What can we do?
Get green-fingered and plant some trees. There are lots of organisations set up to help guide the way in which volunteers are helping to secure Nepal’s future, one being Education and Health Nepal, a volunteer organization founded in 2014 with the sole aim of developing projects that use what Nepal has to offer the world to better the lives of the locals there. 
Raj Gyawali, from our supplier Socialtours Nepal:
“There is a lot of reforestation happening generally around Nepal and the one thing that a lot of people probably don’t know about is the Community Forest Program, which is one of the world’s most famous and has been a very successful program of reforestation across the country. When people trek in Nepal, of course they’ll still see patches of erosion, but that’s a byproduct of the very environment, but what is being done to replenish it has been relatively successful – it’s a sustainable economic success that has driven positive social change, proving that when the economy is put to wise use for the people, it produces the best results.”

Responsible tourism tips

Think twice before you buy souvenirs. Beautiful shahtoosh shawls are woven in the Himalayas from the wool of the Tibetan antelope, or chiru. The chiru is now endangered as a result of hunting for its precious wool - avoid buying anything made from it. A high number of Nepali taboos are to do with food - once you’ve touched something to your lips, it’s considered polluted for everyone else. If you take a sip from your own, or someone else’s water bottle, try not to let it touch your lips and don’t eat from someone else’s plate or offer anyone food you’ve taken a bite of. Know your left from your right - if eating with your hands, use the right one only. The left hand is reserved for washing after defecating. You can use it to hold a drink or cutlery while you eat, but don’t wipe your mouth, or pass food with it. It’s considered good manners to give and receive most things with the right hand. To show respect, offer money, food or gifts with both hands, or with the right hand while the left touches the wrist. The Nepalese are a very calm and contemplative people. You may find yourself in social situations that are out of your comfort zone, but it is important to remember that local people exercise discretion in expressing their feelings, anger and affection towards each other. If you don’t understand something, ask quietly and be patient. It’s easy to get snap-happy when presented with Nepal’s incredible landscape and culture. Remember, this may be your trip of a lifetime, but it’s their reality, so introduce yourself and ask permission before taking a photo. Nepal is a conservative country. Women should have their legs and shoulders covered and men should wear full-length trousers and tops with long sleeves. The forehead is regarded as the most sacred part of the body and it’s impolite to touch an adult Nepali’s head. Do not stretch your legs in public or point your feet at anyone as feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body. Spitting is normal in Nepal and you will see men, women, and children spitting on the street. The same goes for littering. Don’t pull a local person for doing this, but don’t join in either. Don't show affection in public. Although some younger couples hold hands in public, this is relatively new and it is still frowned upon. When visiting ancient and sacred sites there are a few protocol that are handy to know and easy to follow: don’t climb on ruins, avoid touching any religious object, and when you walk around monuments and temples, do so in a clockwise direction, that is – keep the monument on your right. It is generally not a problem to enter temples, but take your shoes off when you do and don't take photos while you’re in there When visiting temples, respect both the place and the people that pray there. Do not throw anything into the fire as it considered sacred and, if for some reason – time of day, particular prayer time – you are not permitted to enter, accept this graciously and ask your guide to ask when might be a better time to come back. Some Hindu temples and their innermost sanctums are usually out of bounds for nonbelievers, who pose the threat of ritual pollution. If you are allowed in, be respectful, take your shoes off before entering and don’t take photos unless you’ve asked permission. Though no one will ever ask, a small donation to temple that you’re visiting will be much appreciated. Donations support the operations of the day. Place your donation on the altar, or if you want to make a specific donation look for a donation box. If you’re granted an audience with a lama at a Buddhist temple or monastery, it’s traditional to present him with a kata: a ceremonial white scarf (usually sold nearby). If you are invited into a private home for a meal, you can bring fruit or sweets, but don’t expect thanks – it is considered offensive to make a fuss in these situations. Take your shoes off when entering, unless shown otherwise. When the food is served you may be expected to eat first, so you won’t be able to follow your host’s lead. Take less than you can eat – asking for seconds is the best compliment you can give. The meal is typically served at the end of a gathering and when the food is finished, everyone leaves. Don’t give pens, money, or sweets to the local people you encounter on visits to villages and it can encourage begging and may be seen to establish a non-equal relationship between tourist and local with tourists being seen as simply ‘givers’ giving to ‘the poor’. Instead, buy local handicrafts directly from villagers and show an interest in their skills. Sweets may seem like an ideal gift for children, but access to dentists is extremely limited to rural dwellers and the last thing you want to give them is tooth decay! Do not feed any wild animals, avoid picking flowers no matter how beautiful they may be, do not touch or move fossils, and importantly, don’t stroke dogs – they can be aggressive towards strangers and may carry rabies. Hassle by touts is on the rise in Nepal and it’s likely you’ll get accosted at the airport and in Kathmandu and offered drugs, treks and sex. Just ignore them and they’re likely to ignore you. If they don’t, ask politely if they’ll leave you alone – do not be rude, as they’ll take it personally. Dealing with beggars is par for the course in Nepal. Adjust to the pathos quickly – many beggars are not bona fide and helping those that are will only encourage those that aren’t. Do not give away medicines either; instead donate them to the destitute at Kathmandu’s Bir Hospital, or at the Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Centre in Kathmandu. The litter problem in Nepal is growing and has increased with the wider availability of pre-packaged goods. Keep your waste to a minimum – avoid accepting plastic bags from shops and reuse the ones you have, buy additional food from local markets to avoid packaging, take an empty plastic bag with you on treks, so you can pick up any additional litter you might spot and take particularly harmful waste, such as batteries, back to Kathmandu with you.
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: Olga Danylenko] [Porters: Bo JÝrgensen] [Dead wood: they called me Lily] [Reforestation: Shadow Ayush]