Mount Everest Empties as Covid-19 Strikes Tourism in Nepal
KATHMANDU, Nepal – It was only last year that Nepal attracted so many climbers that a human jam of hundreds of hikers in puff jackets growled a trail to the top of Mount Everest.
The crowd was evidence of how quickly – as some have said – the alpine tourism industry in Nepal had grown and became a lifeline for the country. Last year, tourism brought more than $ 2 billion to Nepal, one of the poorest nations in Asia, and employed a million people, from porters to pilots.
The pandemic stopped all of that.
The trails that wind through the Himalayas are deserted, including those that lead to Everest Base Camp. According to immigration officials, fewer than 150 climbers have arrived this fall season, up from thousands last year.
Countless sherpas and experienced mountain guides were made unemployed, and many planted barley or grazed yaks over the empty slopes in order to survive.
Many Nepalis fear that the combined impact of the coronavirus and the hammer blow on the economy could set this nation back for years.
“I often think that I will die of hunger before Corona kills me,” said Upendra Lama, an unemployed mountain porter who now depends on donations from a small aid organization to feed himself and his children. “How long will it go on like this?”
Although the whole world is asking similar questions, Nepal has few resources to help people cope with. Covid-19 cases are on the rise, and with around 1,000 ICU beds serving 30 million residents, authorities have ordered people who get sick to stay at home unless they get into critical condition. An unknown number can die out of sight and undetected.
The economic wreck is easier to see. Hotels and teahouses hanging on the sides of the mountains are boarded up. Restaurants, equipment stores and even some of the capital’s most popular watering holes, Kathmandu, have closed for the foreseeable future, including the Tom and Jerry Pub, which served as a beacon for backpackers for decades.
“There is no hope in sight,” said the pub owner, Puskar Lal Shrestha.
Remittances from Nepalis working overseas have become another victim. In good times, millions of people sent money back from all over Asia, particularly from countries in the Persian Gulf. Last year, remittances totaled nearly $ 9 billion. Nepal relies on money transfers more than any other country.
Many Nepalis had inconspicuous jobs such as security guards or maids. But the money was good, especially for people from a country where the average income is $ 3 a day.
Now many of them have been released. Some have been sent home, while others remain imprisoned abroad, without work and feeling deported.
The referral break has frightened many families. Several respondents said they had been forced to move into cheaper apartments and take their children out of private schools and instead send them to state schools that they believed were inferior.
“If the world doesn’t get a corona vaccine soon, our remittances, which account for around 30 percent of national GDP, will dry up completely,” said Sujit Kumar Shrestha, Secretary General of the Nepalese Association of Foreign Employment Agencies.
As the economy suffers, the hospitals fill up. Doctors say the rich and the politically affiliated monopolize hospital beds and the poor who get sick have nowhere to go.
“Our health system is weak and the monitoring mechanism is even weaker,” said Dr. Rabindra Pandey, who works for Nepal Arogya Kendra, an independent organization of public health experts. “Well-connected and wealthy people can easily access private hospitals and afford their fees, but many of the poor die.”
With winter approaching and the Hindu festival season underway, public health experts warn that the Covid-19 crisis in Nepal will continue to worsen. The country has reported around 175,000 infections, roughly the same per capita as India next door. And while the reported deaths are still below 1,000, the tests remain low and Nepalese doctors agree that viral infections and deaths are many times higher.
The virus has reached its tentacles in rural areas and remote cities, where few or no cases were reported just a few months ago. Government officials have been accused of taking advantage of the pandemic to make money. A parliamentary committee is investigating allegations that officials close to Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli have raised the price of essential medical supplies. The officials have denied the allegations.
In some areas, Covid-19 has cut entire families.
Dharma Kumar Shrestha, an elderly man who ran a small business that imported clothes, checked into a hospital in southern Nepal in late September for treatment for asthma. This was the start of a series of events in which nearly half of his family were killed. He caught Covid-19 in the hospital, family members said. Two of his sons who were visiting him were infected.
After the hospitals filled up and authorities ordered people to take a rest at home, the sons returned to their village. They got sicker. When an ambulance was called, the driver refused because he was afraid of getting sick himself.
Within two weeks, Mr. Dharma and two sons died.
“What could be worse than this?” asked Suman Shrestha, a younger relative. “Let us pray that no one else will have to face our fate.”
Health experts say many of the infections in Nepal are from Nepalese workers traveling back from India. India is now number 2 in the world in terms of reported Covid-19 infections – around eight million, just behind the US.
Nepal lives in the shadow of India. Its economy, strategic affairs, and general health are constantly being altered by events in its huge southern neighbor.
Partly due to the boost from tourism, the Nepalese economy had grown faster than India’s by almost 6 percent in 2019. Usually at this time of year jet after jet threaded the mountain ranges at Kathmandu International Airport, spitting out thousands of well-heeled tourists, including many Indians, who are dying to hike in the Annapurnas or to the base camp of Mount Everest.
Last year more than a million tourists visited. The average was spending more than $ 50 a day.
Tourism officials expect at least 800,000 people in the tourism industry will lose their jobs. According to official information, around 50,000 altitude guides, sherpas and others will be among the first in the trekking ecosystem. Some are protesting on the streets of Kathmandu, calling on the government to grant them loans to support their families and threatening to destroy the tourist board’s office if they do not get relief.
“Guides who were once known as the real agents of tourism have been abandoned,” said Prakash Rai, a climbing guide who participated in the recent protests. “We have no means to survive this crisis.”
Not so long ago some people inside and outside the country said it was growing too fast. Some veteran climbers have complained that Nepal was so keen to welcome climbers that the Everest scene had become unruly and dangerous. Another problem was the growing mountains of rubbish on the slopes of Everest.
Despite the surge in Covid-19 cases, other parts of the economy, such as manufacturing, are trying to bring it back to life and some schools have reopened. Travel restrictions that were imposed this spring and summer have been relaxed. A mass exodus from cities to distant villages has begun as Nepalis drive home to celebrate the Hindu holidays of Dashain and Tihar.
However, such a movement bypasses tourist areas.
Pokhara, a beautiful lakeside town in the center of the country, has become a ghost town. At this time last year it was teeming with trekkers.
But as Baibob Poudel, a Pokhara hotelier, said, “I haven’t seen a single foreigner here since April.”
Bhadra Sharma reported from Kathmandu and Jeffrey Gettleman from New Delhi.