Responsible tourism in Nepal
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.
Our Nepal Holidays
People & culture in Nepal
Porters' rightsTrekking 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.
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 fuelMost 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.
“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.”
The trouble with orphanagesThere are over 800 orphanages in Nepal with some 80 percent of these located in the country’s tourist hotspots. Recently the issue of orphanage volunteering in Nepal has been thrown into the spotlight, but for all the wrong reasons.
Understandably, many visitors to Nepal want to combine the country’s stunning mountain scenery with a feel-good stint at a local orphanage, but unaware that what they’re actually doing is supporting a corrupt industry that, on the false premise of providing their children with an education, is tricking parents into sending their kids to fake orphanages in order to extract money from well-intentioned tourists. Not only is this exploitation of some of the poorest families in rural Nepal who may feel they have little choice, but it’s also a huge manipulation of our purse strings, not to mention our intentions. The worst-case scenario for a tourist is that they could find themselves an unwitting accessory to child-trafficking, child abduction and fraud.
What can we do?
When children become a way to make money from philanthropically minded tourists, there will always be people taking advantage of this. Orphanages can become businesses rather than places of care. For this reason, we removed a large number of orphanage volunteer trips from our site in 2013, and launched a campaign to raise awareness of the issues. We do support placements for trained individuals, as well as placements that do not involve contact with the children. You can read more about our orphanage campaign here. We also offer other volunteer placements, rebuilding villages devastated by the 2015 earthquake, and teaching English, so consider volunteering your skills that. If you have any suspicions of child trafficking or child abduction taking place, report it to ECPAT, which works to end the sexual exploitation of children.
When in Nepal, aim to donate any clothes you’ve bought while out there – your tour operator should be able to point out local charities that will be glad of donations. Seek out tour operators who support local projects in Nepal, too. A percentage of your trip fee will then go towards projects that benefit children, for instance supporting the rebuilding of schools after the 2015 earthquake. Check out the work of the Himalayan Trust, too, founded by Sir Edmund Hillary, which runs various educational projects that you can donate to.
Wildlife & environment
ReforestationDespite 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.
“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.”
Animal tourismThe best place for viewing the endangered one-horned rhino and the royal Bengal tiger is Chitwan National Park. However, a much-debated issue relating to this is the use of riding elephants to get closer to them. Although we do not endorse elephant trekking at Responsible Travel (read more in our guide to Elephants in tourism), we do recognise that in Chitwan, the survival of the highly threatened tigers and rhinos is heavily reliant on the funding gained through elephant rides in the park. Allowing elephant back safaris is far from an ideal solution, but it is the 'least bad' solution to a complex problem.
However, this is a rare exception to our stance on wildlife, in which we generally discourage any interaction with wild animals or the altering of behaviour in any way. We do not support local 'sports' such as elephant polo, or traditional practices such as snake charmers, or the use of parrots (which are usually illegally taken from the wild) by soothsayers, who claim they use them to predict the future.
Animal sacrifice is also, sadly, common in Nepal; on particularly auspicious days, many thousands may be ritually slaughtered at temples or festivals. Some rituals are even sponsored by the Nepalese government.
You may come across animals forced to perform for tourists, or take tourists for rides in sweltering temperatures without sufficient food or water. Some are malnourished, abused, old, injured or pregnant. In the Terai, tongas (taxis) are pulled by horses or donkeys who often literally work till they drop. When you are trekking, your luggage could be carried by an overloaded and underfed yak or donkey.
What you can do
Be mindful of what these animals are going through and simply don't participate; there is ample opportunity to see animals being animals in their natural habitats in Nepal, which will give you a lot more pleasure and cause them a lot less pain. If you do see a working animal being maltreated, be sure to let the owner why you have not chosen to employ them. Conversely, thank and tip owners of well treated animals to encourage better practice.
Look out for petitions to stop the world's largest animal sacrifice in Nepal, which takes place every five years at the Gadhimai Festival and can include up to half a million animals. Change.org ran a petition to stop the slaughter at the last festival in 2014.
Visit our animal welfare page for more information on the welfare of captive animals around the world.
“Elephant-based tourism is a tricky one in Nepal because the one-horned rhino is a very endangered species of rhino and elephant tourism is definitely keeping it alive because people are travelling to the jungle and riding on an elephant to see it – the bigger issue is the treatment of the elephants by humans and though government guidelines have been put in place to be worked with, some elephants are still treated very badly. An elephant is a far lower impact form of tourism than going to see the rhino in a jeep, which it’s unlikely you’ll get to do anyway because the noise of the cars scares the animals away.”