The Roof of the World

Tourism in Nepal Strikes a Delicate Balance

To reach the best place to see Mount Everest (known locally as Sagarmatha), from Nepal's capital city of Kathmandu you first take a half-hour flight on a small plane to Lukla, then walk 31 miles to the small city of Namche. The trekking is by foot, up 12,000 feet over an unpaved path that's inaccessible to motorized vehicles. Fifteen feet wide in some places, as narrow as five in others, the alternately rocky and smooth path ascends and descends, traversing narrow steel bridges over fast-flowing rivers, and a landscape of Himalayan peaks, pine forests and valleys. A vast number of faded but still lively Buddhist prayer flags hang from passing buildings.

The Roof of the World
Nepal, at the roof of the world, is threatened by its own popularity as a destination for ecotourists and trekkers.
© Mia Macdonald

Tourism is an important part of Nepal's economy and Sagarmatha National Park is a popular destination, with people drawn to the roof of the world. Each year, about 25,000 tourists visit. But tourism, and the people it brings with it, creates a "population effect" in the region. An average of four service people migrate in for every tourist. This has resulted in an influx of 125,000 new people whose needs put new stresses on the ecosystem, especially the forests. An expedition to Everest can include 30 climbers and an astonishing 100 porters.

A Delicate Balance

The permanent population is small: about 3,000 people reside in the national park itself and 4,000 in the buffer zone, declared in 2002. The critical buffer allows wildlife to migrate in and out and provides a livelihood for local residents, thus increasing local support for the protected national park. Thirty to 50 percent of the revenue from the park is returned to buffer-zone residents by the government to support sustainable development activities.

Not surprisingly, considerably more wood is cut during tourist season, to cook meals, heat common rooms, and provide the occasional hot shower that tourists crave after a long day of walking. Field-based conservation workers from the World Wildlife Fund have been promoting alternatives in the buffer zone and national park to reduce the toll on trees. Among them are fuel briquettes made from animal dung (which haven't caught on at a large-scale) and more efficient "back boilers," which when installed on stoves reduce the wood needed for cooking.

In addition, throughout the region, locals manage tree nurseries—plots of seedlings that, when tall and hardy enough, are planted to regenerate the forest. Whether the forests remain resilient in coming years is an open question, especially outside the park. The challenges of sustainable use will increase if the local population (doubled in the Himalayas since the 1950s) increases, or the number of tourists and porters swells further.

Unlike the top of Everest, the route to Namche is not covered in debris left behind by generations of trekkers. Litter is relatively rare, perhaps due to fewer tourists visiting in 2002 due to Nepal's then-raging civil war. But tourists, and porters and residents, too, use many goods encased in plastic or metal—soda, canned food and the ever-present plastic water bottle (see "Message in a Bottle," cover story, September/October 2003).

The park and a local nonprofit organization, the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee, work to educate tourists not to litter and urge them to carry out as much of the solid waste as they bring in, especially plastic bottles. They've made some progress. But packaging still abounds and much more is buried or burned than recycled.

At the viewing area for Everest, a 20-minute walk above Namche, the evidence of tourists is scarce. White-blue in the cool morning air, the tallest peak in the world is luminous, glinting as the sun rises against a clear sky.

If You Go

Nepal is a country of greatly varied topography and weather, including the highest mountain peaks in the world, thick, humid forests and temperate plains. So, it's best to know the climate and landscape of regions to be visited before setting out, and to pack accordingly. Layers are best, since temperatures may fall at night but be quite warm to hot in the daytime. If a trek is planned, bring appropriate gear: good walking boots, a warm, waterproof jacket, a hat and a sleeping bag. Alternatively, you can also rent trekking clothes and supplies at shops in Kathmandu.

While planning your trip, check U.S. State Department and international news services for updates on the state of Nepal's civil conflict. Most of the skirmishes are localized, but bombs have been set off in Kathmandu so it's a good idea to be aware of the situation before setting out.

MIA MACDONALD packs out what she packs in.