“Tourism can be a tool for development in Nepal...people that travel bring money to remote areas...[it] leads to alleviation of starvation and health challenges,” said one of the owners of 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking in Pokhara. It is not very often that anyone elaborates beyond a simple declaration that Nepal needs development. In most of the interviews our group conducted, people described challenges facing post-war Nepal under the umbrella of what we commonly call “human development.” A local peace committee member in the Rupandehi district told us, “A hungry stomach cannot think peace with the mind.” In the districts of Rupandehi and Rolpa we were informed that the root causes of the decade long civil war were related to socio-economic issues. The head of the Local Peace Committee in Liwang announced that, “Peace is development.” He defined his concept of development by saying that, “...[development is when] all people are well-off... equal distribution of wealth and equality is peace.”Not many people were able to give concrete examples and plans for what would constitute development in Nepal. Among the grassroots organizations and local NGOs there were buzzwords such as ‘hydro electric power’ and ‘vocational training,’ but it was difficult to get anyone to clearly articulate how any specific program was going to be successfully and sustainably implemented. Even when pushed, many respondents would express frustration at the political parties’ involvement in every activity that took place across the country rather than detail an idea or concept that could bring about the development they initially expressed they needed.
3 Sisters Adventure Trekking in Pokhara proved to be an exception to the rule. The company articulated and demonstrated a model for using tourism as a tool for development. They run a guesthouse for tourists, they employ female guides, and they oversee a training program for underprivileged women to become trekking guides. Their business also funds an NGO called Empowering Women of Nepal that runs a children’s home for girls and provides scholarships for women in Western Nepal training to be midwives.
This company started when three sisters - Lucky, Dicky and Nicky Chhetri - saw an opportunity to get involved in the tourism/trekking industry. According to the documentary “Trailblazers: Women in the Trekking Industry of Nepal,” Dicky Chhetri states, “People always laughed at us.” In spite of public ridicule, the women completed training for becoming trekking guides and eventually started their own trekking company. After starting their company they discovered a large number of female tourists who had felt discomfort and faced harassment from male guides and porters along the Himalayan trails. These women were among the first customers, and today women trekkers still make up a substantial portion of the sisters’ clientele.
The sisters used their success in the tourism sector to develop a program for training underprivileged Nepalese women in the trekking industry. We were informed during our interview with the company in Pokhara that “Women do not need sympathy. We need education and opportunity.” Initially it was difficult to recruit women because people were afraid that working in the tourism industry was to be a sex worker. In the documentary Nicky states that “...the culture is very strong here...” However, through persistence and hard work the sisters have developed a successful training program that allows young women from Nepal to find financial independence and freedom from the limitations of the structural repression that is found throughout the country.
In terms of tourist attractions, Nepal has an impressive array of offerings. There is the obvious draw - the highly visible Himalayan range that stretches across northern Nepal. The Siddhartha highway through the Hill region is one of the most beautiful drives in the world. There are also several UNESCO World Heritage sites and a wealth of temples and sacred spaces that add to the rich diversity of culture that attracts tourists across the globe.
The 2009 Nepal Tourism Sector Analysis states that tourism “became the leading industry in Nepal in 1983.” So now, after thirty years of developing this industry, it is puzzling to see Nepal rank 112 out of 139 countries analyzed in the 2011 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report by the World Economic Forum.
A report entitled “Tourism Cluster in Nepal,” published by the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government, cites one of the main obstacles to developing tourism in Nepal as “poor marketing and positioning.” The slogan for Nepal’s year of tourism is, “Once is not enough.” I never heard this slogan until after I was back at home doing further research on the topic. Apart from our discussions about tourism with the 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking in Pokhara, which received 52 percent of the tourists in 2008 according to the Nepal Tourism Board, we did not hear anyone speak about tourism as a possibility for furthering development.
The Nepal Tourism Report recommends that new tourist areas need to be developed. They advise that tax incentives be created and infrastructure be developed in districts where it was either destroyed during the war or never developed at all. I was standing in the Dolokha district looking at the Himalyan peak, Gauri Shankar, and wondering why more tourists were not milling about as I had seen them in Kathmandu and Pokhara. One obvious reason was the aching tailbone I had from the ride up the mountain on a road that only had room for one car at a time.
The Tourism Report suggests using a specialized police force to ensure smooth and safe travel for tourists. We were warned several times on our trip that there might be a strike which would close down the roads and prevent freedom of movement for everyone. Though a sign in our bus read “tourist,” we were told that it may or may not have any affect on the situation. A local peace committee member in the Dolokha district stated that “the war is not over.” She went on to explain that she meant the political parties used strikes to effectively shut down the country in order to manipulate certain political situations to their advantage.
In spite of these challenges that confront the development of Nepal’s tourist industry, the 3 Sisters Trekking Company seems to be thriving. They began their business at the same time that the People’s War was declared, yet they have survived and even thrived over a period of ten years. Their business model and approach to a sustainable tourist business provides a blueprint for other organizations to adapt and implement for their own success. Tourism can be of great benefit to Nepal. It remains to be seen whether the government of Nepal will facilitate its growth or implement policies to benefit the whole of Nepal.
Raymond Aycock was in Nepal for a two-week field course titled “Challenges to Peacebuilding in Nepal” led by Dr. Pushpa Iyer of the Monterey Institute of International Studies. Raymond’s blog is part of a series of reflections by Dr. Iyer and her students on the challenges to building peace in this country after a decade long war. -Ed.
About the author: Raymond Aycock is currently a Master's candidate at the Monterey Institute of International Studies focusing on the study of conflict resolution, and is particularly interested in movements, great and small, that resist the dominant discourse regarding development and modernity.