Tourism that treads lightly on the land

We have had more than a year now to ponder a ‘better normal’ for Nepal’s tourism industry. It has been pointed out that in the post-pandemic age, Nepal’s unique selling point should be parts of the country with unspoilt nature, tranquility, wilderness, and a sustainable and equitable tourism model.

Instead of mass tourism, experts have laid more emphasis on high value guests who prefer activities that are light on the land, rely on locally grown and locally made products as far as possible, and carry smaller carbon footprints.

A new breed of social entrepreneurs had been trying out this new style of tourism in Nepal even before Covid-19. But the pandemic has helped turn the trend from a fad into a necessity.

The questions being asked are: who really benefits from tourism and at what cost? How can the pluses be made to outweigh the minuses? What are the ways that trekking can inject income directly into the village economy, instead of local people getting only a trickle after the European wholesalers and their Kathmandu-based agents have subtracted their margins?

The entrepreneurs who were trying out this new model, are now in trouble because of the collapse of Nepal’s tourism industry. However, as consciousness grows among Nepalis with disposable income about environmental degradation and the need to reduce waste, plastics and fossil fuel use, domestic tourism could also be a driver for a better normal in tourism.

Indeed, three of the initiatives featured here indicate that tourism entrepreneurs have also woken up to the value of the domestic market. The growing number of Nepalis on the trekking trails and at major destinations and the initiatives to clean up garbage mean that Nepalis want to help fellow-Nepalis by travelling in Nepal.

Kalsee Ecolodge

This quaint collection of cottages in the midst of forest hills with a magnificent view of Annapurna and Machhapuchre is located in Tanchok, a ridge 35km northwest of Pokhara off the Lumle Highway. It is high enough to get some snow in winter, and low enough for it to be warm and comfortable rest of the year.

Kalsee Ecolodge was established to stimulate the local economy with an emphasis on income generation for women, promote eco-friendly practices and cultivate the idea of sustainable tourism for rural development.

It is 2km from the nearest settlement, and by staying off-grid and relying on renewable energy to power the hotel, supporting the local economy by providing jobs as well as sourcing all raw materials including food locally, following innovative waste management practices including the use of eco-friendly composting toilets that use natural decomposition and evaporation to recycle human waste, Kalsee touches upon several of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is well aligned with carbon neutral accommodation services.

“Each cottage was designed with extreme care for the surroundings using local craftsmanship,” says General Manager Ram Bhakta Gurung. “Our food is all local dishes, prepared from ingredients produced by farmers in the surrounding areas.”

Because of its location and surroundings, Kalsee Ecolodge offers a variety of activities from meditation and yoga, bird and butterfly watching, to short forest hikes to unspoilt traditional Gurung villages nearby. The semi-tropical forests teem with wildlife, and there are 400 species of birds just in the surrounding mountains.  A nearby hilltop offers spectacular sunrise views, and one-day walk away are the hot springs in Jhinuwa.

Madi Eco-village

The Madi Valley is in Nepal, but its location south of the Chitwan National Park has meant that it has always been isolated from the rest of the country. This is also what preserved the region’s pristine environment and the unspoilt lifestyle of its people.

The village of Bankatta is inhabited mostly by the indigenous Bot people who depend on the forest and river for their livelihood, but are adaptable and willing to take on ecologically-sensitive, nature-based community tourism that the Madi Eco-Village project will promote.

Madi feels like rural Nepal a few decades ago, and its promoters say the project does not try to idealise that time, but to lay out a different path of development that appreciates and values natural assets and strong local culture, while embracing careful modernization to raise local living standards.

The prime mover of the project is Sarita Bot, a community leader who has been working with international partners. Sustainable Mountain Architecture (SMA) was building the first of two cottages and a community hall before the pandemic hit, but construction has restarted and the facility is expected to open by Dasain.

The village-stay concept is designed so that both Nepali and international guests can immerse themselves in the local culture and nature, get to know the way of life, and get an authentic experience of rural Nepal.

The Madi Valley is wedged between the edge of the forest and the Indian border. It teems with wildlife, and the 32 sq m cottages are designed for serenity and comfort. There will be home-cooked meals and activities that provide an alternative to the mass tourism prevalent in Sauraha. The architecture of the cottages are made to resemble traditional Bot homes with large porches. They stand on an elevated plinth of river stones, and the wall and tile roofs are all made with local bamboo and sal.

The project is supported by REPIC Switzerland and MyClimate. “The idea was to explore a model for holistic tourism as a means to catalyse sustainable rural development in Nepal,” says Monika Schaffner of connecting spaces. “Tourism has the potential to bring the economic, ecological and cultural aspects together in an ideally win-win situation for people, place and planet.”

The Pavilions Himalayas

Nepal’s leading eco-sustainable resort, The Pavilions Himalayas which operates The Farm has added its Lake View property, and re-opened both after the lockdowns and closures. These two properties are now offering exciting getaway packages for Nepalis.

The Pavilions prides itself as a truly eco-sensitive luxury resort that ploughs some of its profits into the local community and to charities. Set on an organic farm with goats, free-ranging chicken, cows, and even a rice paddy, the resorts recycle all water, compost all biodegradable matter and use biogas in the kitchen.

It produces its own biodegradable signature toiletries from natural local ingredients. The Farm has 14 bungalows powered with solar energy, and rainwater harvesting. Employees are from nearby villages, and the resorts try to forestall out-migration of youth.

“This is a feel-good getaway in every sense,” says founder Douglas Maclagan.

The Lakeview satellite resort has eight tented villas situated in the midst of lush forests alive with birds that mix luxury with adventure. The glamping site offers stunning views of Phewa Lake’s unspoilt western edge and the Annapurnas beyond.

"We're thrilled to finally re-open and welcome guests back. Nepalis are ready to explore our beautiful country and it feels good to offer an exclusive package with a delicate balance of adventure and relaxation," says General Manager Rajiv Desraj Shrestha.

The resort’s 'Naturally Yours' offer is for a 2-night, 3-day eco-getaway that includes airport transfers for Rs22,000 for couples at the Farm and Rs24,888 for two at Lakeview.

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