On April 25, 2015, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake shook the small, land-locked country of Nepal. Two and a half weeks later, on May 12, a large 7.3 aftershock hit. Between the two quakes, almost 9000 people were killed and millions left without adequate food and shelter. Over the following weeks and months, around $4 billion in aid money was committed by various international organizations and governments. As Nepali journalist Deepak Adhikari has stated, “the goodwill Nepal has garnered in certain international quarters — particularly due to the expansion of the tourism industry since the 1950s — meant that there was an overwhelming desire to help.” Nepal is remembered fondly by many who visit. However, it was reported recently that most of the money pledged and sent has not been received by the intended recipients. A combination of Nepali government corruption and ineptitude and the inefficiencies of international humanitarian organizations has meant that more than six months after the disaster, many rural Nepalis are still living in makeshift accommodation and do not have access to adequate food, medicine or warm clothes.
Compounding this natural disaster, in late 2015, Nepal has been suffering under a political, human-made disaster. A political scramble over control of the large amounts of money donated to Nepal led to the long-awaited Nepali Constitution being rushed through parliament on September 19th. Nepal became a republic in 2008 after a decade-long civil war. It certainly can be argued that Nepal needed a constitution, and quickly, as successive governments had failed to reach a consensus over what such a constitution would say. However, this rush-job led to Nepal’s second major crisis of 2015: the blockade. Nepalis on the plains bordering India objected to the Constitution, believing that it is exclusionary towards them. Protests since August have led to the deaths of over 50 people, and have meant that the free passage of goods between India and Nepal has been disrupted. The Nepali Government is blaming India; India is claiming that the Nepali protestors are preventing the free passage of vehicles. Neither side are without blame. But whoever is really at fault, the fact that Nepal is heavily reliant on India for many essential supplies—such as petrol and cooking gas—means that the whole country has been suffering under what is now being called a humanitarian crisis.
Yet none of this means that international tourists should not visit Nepal. Quite the opposite. Travelling through Nepal in October and November 2015 — half a year after the earthquakes, and a few months into the blockade — I was surprised by how easy it still was to get around as a tourist. Transport costs have increased due to the scarcity of fuel, but these costs are still insignificant for the average traveller from a developed country. For example, a five hour bus journey from Kathmandu to Chitwan, which would have cost about $5 before, was still only about $8. Local buses were crowded and running less frequently, but there are many affordable alternatives for tourists. Joining organized tours or asking hotels to arrange transfers are simple ways of avoiding unexpected cancellations. The only hiccup I encountered in five weeks of travel was one cancelled domestic flight that I had arranged myself. Everything arranged by a tour company or hotel ran as smoothly as it would have done pre-2015.
Further, the disruption caused by the earthquakes, from a visitor’s perspective, was far less than I had anticipated. I lived in Nepal in 2013, so knew how Kathmandu’s cityscape had changed, but some first-time visitors I met said they hardly noticed the damage. Only 20 percent of heritage sites and 15 percent of hiking trails were destroyed. Although significant, the damage was not total, or even close to it. Out of Nepal’s 75 districts, only 14 were damaged in the quakes, and only 6 or 7 of these were important districts for tourism. The jungle national parks on the plains bordering India were not affected at all. Neither were most of the rivers, which are ideal for kayaking and rafting. Although the popular Kathmandu Durbar Square—with its museum, palace and temples—was severely damaged and remains rubble-strewn, the nearby Patan and Bhaktapur Durbar Squares were less so, and are still open to visitors.
If potential visitors are worried that there is nothing left to see or do in Nepal, they shouldn’t be. The best way to help Nepal is by visiting in 2016.
Along the route of the famous Everest Base Camp trek, the locals are wealthier than the average Nepali because of the steady stream of travellers to the area. Maya Sherpa—a Nepali mountaineer who comes from the region, and my group’s guide—told me that it is common for people from the Khumbu region to own two or three houses, including one in Kathmandu. Therefore, after the earthquake, people here could afford to rebuild relatively quickly. When I asked whether tourism should, in fact, be encouraged elsewhere in the country rather than in a region that is already quite prosperous, I was told that Nepal relies heavily on repeat visitors. People may be attracted to the country the first time by ‘big name’ treks such as Everest or Annapurna Base Camp, but once in the country they realize how much more there is to see. Next time, they may choose to go to more out-of-the-way places, somewhere less well-known. Therefore, if fewer people are visiting these well-known regions, the long-term effects will be felt nationwide.
Beyond the immediate loss of life, property and income, the earthquake will continue to have other long-reaching effects in Nepal. With little to no organized support for many communities, people must rebuild and recover however they can. For many, this means going to the Gulf countries or other developing parts of Asia to work in construction. Nepal is heavily dependent on the remittances sent back by such workers, but the conditions and treatment of Nepali workers are notoriously bad. Drops in tourist arrivals means that more young Nepali men are forced into such work, as jobs in tourism at home dry up. Those who never had access to tourism dollars are in an even more precarious position.
It would be easy to get angry or disheartened by the ways that the Nepali people have been failed in the aftermath of the April-May earthquakes. But life has always been tough in this land-locked country with few resources and a long history of political mismanagement. A common refrain in Nepal, spoken with a shrug and a smile, is Ke Garne? What to do? It is not a question so much as a recognition that life is tough and there is little choice but to keep on striving.