Where have all the guides gone?
In November 2019, Tsering Bhuti joined Alliance Française to learn French. In her job as a trekking guide, she thought learning a new language was going to be a boost.
But the Covid-19 pandemic had other plans for her, denting her ambition, taking away her livelihood, and knocking out Nepal’s trekking industry.
“The Visit Nepal campaign would have been a turning point for my career, and I was looking forward to making business connections for the future,” says Bhuti, who has assisted expeditions on Annapurna and Manaslu trekking circuit.
But she has not given up all hope. “Maybe this break will give me more time to prepare to be a better guide. I will train for mountaineering now,” she adds.
Bhuti is just one of thousands of trekking and mountaineering guides in Nepal who have been unemployed for over a year now. Although regular international flights restarted in October, and trekking resumed in October, the number of tourists visiting Nepal slumped from over 1.1 million in 2019 to fewer than 230,000 last year.
There was a slim hope that things would pick up in the 2021 spring climbing season, but with many countries going through a third wave of coronavirus, airline and expedition bookings are seeing cancellations.
The impact of the global pandemic has been seen on all sectors of Nepal’s economy, but none more so than in tourism. The industry used to directly employ 1 million Nepalis, and many more who benefited in ancillary sectors.
The suspension of travels after the coronavirus pandemic also dealt a blow to the government’s Visit Nepal 2020 (VNY 2020) campaign, which had a set target of welcoming two million tourists last year.
After being closed for nearly a year, the Nepal Academy of Tourism and Hotel Management (NATHM) in Kathmandu is planning to re-open some of its classes with minimum students so that guides and tourism support staff can use the time to upgrade their skills.
“We get numerous calls every single day asking if we are resuming our classes,” says Gyanendra Pandit of NATHM. “It’s time to get back into action.”
Last year, NATHM registered 300 students for tourist guides and 800 for trekking guide training courses which had to be suspended after running for a few weeks as the country went into lockdown.
When Visit Nepal year began in early January 2020, travel agents, guides, porters were all upbeat in the expectation of more business. But just as trekkers and tourists started arriving for the spring season, flights to and from Kathmandu were stopped in March.
“Tourism is largely run by the private sector in Nepal with very little help from the government. This unforeseen crisis has made us think about how we conduct tourism in this country,” says Sarita Lama of the Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal. “This year our revenue is zero. Many trekking and travel agencies have closed indefinitely, as they were unable to pay rents and their employees."
Nepal’s tourism sector brought in over $700 million in 2019, and contributed 8% equivalent to the country’s GDP. Indeed, tourism experts say pandemic has given the industry time to rethink the whole business model.
The former CEO of Nepal Tourism Board Deepak Raj Joshi agrees that the Covid-19 crisis has given Nepal some breathing space and to look for ways to make tourism more sustainable and for its benefits to be more equitably distributed within the country.
“We should use this pandemic as an opportunity to work towards improvement of facilities along trekking trails and upgrading skills of porters and guides so they can earn more when trekking resumes,” Joshi says.
There are also sightseeing tour guides who has lost their jobs in the past year. Kedar Tamang has been a guide taking visitors to tourist attractions around Nepal for the past 25 years. He says he hasn’t seen any crisis as dismal as the past year.
“As a tour guide, our responsibility has been to portray a good image of Nepal to the outside world by sharing our culture, history and heritage,” says Tamang. “Out of 4,500 registered tour guides, not even one person has found another job for a year now.”
The dire emergency has forced some in the business to adapt to the new environment and create new opportunities in domestic tourism, and to do advance online promotion for a time when visitors can return to Nepal.
Manish Shrestha of Enroute Nepal says, “Most of the travel agents have shifted online and have made us rethink our business model. That’s how we are now adapting and adjusting to the new normal.”
But for most porters and trekking guides, this is not an option. There is also a lot of competition to guide the few Nepali trekking goops that are venturing out along the trails.
Ang Kingka Sherpa, a certified trekking guide has been out of a job since the beginning of the lockdown. The 31-year-old has worked his way up the career ladder from being a porter.
“Being a guide or a porter is not just my job, it is also my passion. I do not think I can do anything else for a living,” says Sherpa, who has difficulty providing for his family after losing his income, and exhausting his savings.
But he has not lost all hope. He is confident tourists will come back to Nepal: “April-May still might hold promise. Let’s see how things go.”
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