How is climate change affecting holidays in Nepal?

“We have always said that when you travel to Nepal, you have to have a plan B,” says Lesia Povkh from Swotah Travel, our Nepal travel specialists. “But this time we had to have plan C and plan D – we had to make new decisions every hour.”

Heavy rain in Nepal is making planning trekking trips harder and harder, even for experienced teams like hers. “We had families travel with children and their tour were affected by constant rain in October… In Nepal there aren’t many activities you can do indoors.”

Hiking has previously been best in spring and autumn, but the season seems to get shorter every year. “It used to be that the best time to come was March to the end of May, and June,” says Lesia. “But it’s started raining earlier. It rained a lot in March. Now, only April is a good time to come to trek. The same is true in autumn. Before, the season was September to the middle of December. Now, for the last 3-4 years according to my personal experience – and travellers’ experiences – the season is now from the middle of October and the latest you should go is the end of November.”

Summer is characterised by constant rain, and winter is often thought to be too cold for trekking.
The Himalayas are melting... The snowy peaks are disappearing.
The rain doesn’t just put a dampener on things. It can make trekking a risky activity. “Trails in Nepal are really dangerous in the rain,” says Lesia. “It’s really slippery and there are landslides.” Landslides are becoming increasingly common due to climate change.

Companies like Swotah Travel, who try to take tourists to quieter and more remote destinations, are forced to quite literally return to the beaten track. “We have to rethink our trails and choose stone-paved paths,” says Lesia.

For tourists expecting charming routes through forests, dirt tracks and rocky paths, this change can be a surprise. Meanwhile, Nepal’s infrastructure is developing apace, making walking on new tarmac roads increasingly common.

Nepal & climate change

The prolonged rainy season is caused by climate change in the Himalayas. In 2021, heavy rain, floods and landslides in Nepal made headlines. The monsoon came two weeks early in June, then heavy rain fell again in October, two months after the monsoon was supposed to finish. In 2022, the monsoon outstayed its welcome by two weeks, causing fatal landslides. The climate is predicted to get warmer and wetter – which could have grave repercussions for Nepal’s primarily agricultural economy.

“It’s never been a problem before,” says Lesia. “The Himalayas are melting. You can’t see the same pictures that I saw the first time I travelled. The snowy peaks are disappearing.”

The Himalayas, especially in eastern Nepal, are melting at a faster rate than the global average, increasing flood risk as snowlines and glaciers recede up the mountains.

It means that trekking companies are converging on the same trails and may be fighting over the same visitors over the same precious few weeks of the year. So far this is not a problem; visitor numbers are slow to pick up in the country after Covid – but the future looks uncertain.

“We have a lot of worries,” says Lesia. “If the weather is like this it means that less people will try and visit Nepal. Or it will be really flooded with visitors for a few weeks a year – then the rest of the time it will be empty.”

Adapting to change: snow leopards at large

I know some people who went on an Everest Base Camp trek and saw snow leopards.
Climate change may be changing how Nepalese wildlife behaves. Snow leopards are notoriously shy, and most are found in the remote Dolpo region in Western Nepal. Our snow leopard trek, run by Lesia, has historically taken visitors into difficult-to-reach regions in the west of the country to try to see them. However, in recent years these elusive animals have been spotted in new areas.

“Snow leopards are now noticed all around Nepal,” says Lesia. “Before, they were in the Upper Mustang area; now, you can spot them in the Everest Base Camp area.”

Climate change will affect snow leopards by shrinking their habitat. They live above the tree line, but the tree line will move up with warming weather. Climate change can also cause food scarcity, which may push these animals into new areas, and therefore closer to humans.

“Before, we did the snow leopard trek in Upper Mustang; in February, we will have two travellers who will go to Nar Phu valley,” explains Lesia. “This is a new place to spot snow leopards for us. I think it is happening because of the climate change – they are getting closer to communities where people live to steal sheep or a yak. They are looking for easier food, so it brings them closer – they broaden their horizons.”
Elephants, tigers and birdlife are really increasing.
A recent study found that snow leopards were preying on domestic livestock even when there was abundant food in their habitat. This could suggest that it is larger snow leopard populations that are the cause of more frequent sightings.

Nepal is a country with plenty of conservation success stories – it has a healthy tiger population, making tiger watching a great holiday with a 75 percent success rate for tiger sightings.

“Elephants, tigers and birdlife are really increasing,” says Lesia. “Nepal isn’t famous for wild safaris or bird watching, but actually it’s getting good for these things.”

Combine climate change with recent conservation efforts, and a decline in tourists after Covid-19, and you have good conditions for wildlife watching in Nepal.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Nepal or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

Nepal’s green revolution

The irony that Nepal finds itself at the thin end of the wedge in the climate crisis is not lost on Nepalese people. Whilst Nepal is ranked the world’s fourth most vulnerable country to climate change impacts, the country’s green credentials put others to shame. Forest cover is increasing and the country is set to produce more electricity from hydropower than it needs.

“Now a lot of electric cars and buses are used for tourists and local people,” says Lesia, explaining how electric buses now whirr tourists from Kathmandu to Pokhara. Swotah Travel have shifted to electric vehicles too.

Nepal makes it easy to be a responsible tourist. It’s very easy, for instance, to be entirely vegan on a trip, due to the diet being naturally vegan dishes like daal and rice. It’s known that eating a plant-based diet can help reduce your CO2 emissions whilst on holiday.

However, Nepal’s green credentials are levelled thousands of times over by large and polluting neighbouring countries like India and China.

“Offences that we have not committed are punishing us,” said Nepal president Bidhya Devi Bhandari, speaking at the Reykjavik Global Women Forum in 2022.

Shifting holidays with the seasons

Whilst Nepal is already doing so much, there seems like little hope for change – but small companies are doing what they can.

“We have to find solutions,” says Lesia. The answer might lie in the less-visited winter season: “We are looking at treks at lower altitudes.”

For example, visitors could consider doing a homestay in Annapurna in the winter season. “It’s not that cold and it’s not raining in winter months. In December, January and February – this is a great time to enjoy culture, see how people live and what they do by coming on cultural treks.”

Trekking around Annapurna is possible in winter, but visitors who want to do the full Annapurna Circuit may have to forgo the Thorong La pass – or plan in extra days to detour around it. As the highest point of the Annapurna Circuit, it might be blocked by snow.

Lesia cautiously recommends winter treks, but only if you’re experienced. “If you have been trekking a lot and are prepared for more extreme treks you can do higher altitude treks in winter, but you have to prepare for plan C. You may have to turn back if it is snowing too much.”

The best thing visitors to Nepal can do is keep an open mind about what regions they should visit, and be open to changes to their trekking routes. And visit: post Covid, Nepal is crying out for visitors. With less crowds, this might be the best time in recent history to go wildlife watching. Just make sure you go with a good operator, who can be ready to put plan C in place, just in case.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Olga Danylenko] [Intro: Chirag Saini] [Snow leopards: Ksuryawanshi]