I’ll admit I haven’t even looked at the data, admitted any exist, but I am almost certain Nepal is one of the most beloved countries in the world. It may have to do with its relatively small size, the inebriating feeling at high altitudes, or perhaps its citizens, traditionally kind and friendly; maybe the mystical lure of the Himalaya and its snowy peaks, considered the centre of the Universe by the philosophical and religious traditions of the Subcontinent. Then there is that sense of vulnerability conveyed by its peculiar position, squeezed between China and India who have been confronting each other for centuries over territorial disputes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the border separating the two Asian giants. For many, however, Nepal is synonymous with long treks. It is a country where the entries “alpinism” and “adventure” weigh heavily in defining the national GDP, which standing at less than $21 billion, comes in as one of the most fragile economies on the planet. According to data in the 2016 World Economic Outlook Database, published in October by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Nepal is the 28th poorest country in the world, and looking at the countries faring worse, it is one of the few that isn’t riddled by ongoing conflicts.
To give an idea of the weakness of the Nepalese economy one needs to simply consider that souvenirs and other purchases made by foreign tourists between Pokara and Kathmandu account for 17.7% of total exports. We are talking about scarves, hippy shirts, carpets, incense, bracelets and the unmistakable Tibetan flats, hanging in the living rooms of most people who have returned from a climbing expedition or from a simple trek in some Himalayan valley. There is nothing inherently wrong in this, especially considering the impact that tourism and the generated income have had on employment, grown to 604,000 in 2016, and predicted to reach 1.3 million jobs by 2027. Numbers and data however force us to look where one would usually rather not see, and understand the fragility of a nation in danger now more than ever. There are multiple reasons and probably political instability plays a defining role in the question, if anything because it is the ruling authority over an inadequate judiciary system, and the matrix of widespread corruption. It goes without saying that reforms are few or non-existent, the necessary conditions to sustain development are lacking and that is enough to hinder individual enterprise, domestic and foreign investments, forcing the economy into a state of never-ending torpidity.
In the same way, Nepal and the Nepalese are subjected to the impact of tourism. It is paradoxical, but that which as we have seen represents a breath of fresh air for the country’s employment rate, is in fact driving a wedge between citizens and the fragile traditional economies. Tourism in Nepal is undoubtedly varied and filled with good intentions, but it is nevertheless systematic, invasive and in some respects intrusive. Too much, concentrated in too little. I am not referring solely to the infamous base camp of Everest, turned into something resembling an amusement park from which one may climb the escalator to the roof of the world. I am talking specifically about the more remote areas, where entire families of herders are willing to sacrifice their ancestral relationship with the land on the altar of a guest-house. They are losing traditional knowledge, they no longer know how to milk or make cheese, or they allow the caravan routes to dry out, on which they traded in goods and livestock with the other valleys, favouring cultural exchange and the original micro-economy, the only truly sustainable kind in a village four thousand metres above sea level.
The excessive pressure of tourism is therefore distorting the life prospects of the Nepalese. The logic of coexistence in the village communities are becoming lost, substituted by the principles of competition to attract one more trekker or returning clients. The concept of sustainability is lost, drowned under the waste left behind by travellers. It matters little if plastic and cans are mostly collected, packaged and sent to the valley. To complicate matters we must add the devastating effects of the earthquake that in April 2015 killed about nine thousand people, razing 824 thousand dwellings to the ground and heavily weakening the economy, beginning with that connected to tourism. Al Jazeera has recently published an analysis on the state of the post-earthquake reconstruction, highlighting the government’s inability to distribute funds allocated for such purpose. The publication explains how immediately after the seism, 4.1 billion dollars were sent from the international community, on a total of 9 billion estimated to stem the emergency and bring the country back to point “zero”. These funds should have been also distributed in instalments to 900 thousand families in need, but the process has run aground. Only 12% of the total has been distributed, to only 544,966 families – National Reconstruction Authority data –, allowing the reconstruction of only 21 thousand houses. In some cases, funds were allocated to families but these were never followed by aid programs, such as reactivating essential services, like drinking water, in fact making any attempt to reconstruction impossible. Then again building materials are lacking, builders and technicians who would operate on the field to certify the advancement of works.
The Nepalese earthquake is one of the specific main themes among the works presented at the Trento Film Festival, the annual mountain cinema and culture festival which took place between April 27 and May 7. Eloquent, and undoubtedly recommended, the documentary Trembling Mountain by Kesang Tseten Lama was shot over the period of one year in the Nepalese region of Langtang, one of the hardest hit areas by the earthquake in 2015. Here, the village of Langtang was razed to the ground by a huge mass of ice, mud and rock fallen from one of the nearby towering peaks which created an air movement equal to half of that caused by the Hiroshima atomic bomb. In just a few moments 400 people were killed, including dozens of foreign tourists. One year on, the documentary investigated the profound transformations that are investing the whole area. Starting from the realisation of the survivors, for whom the implications of tourism, both vital for obvious economic reasons, but also limiting the return to a sustainable existence, have never been clearer.
Before tourism, though, to nurture Nepal’s recovery what is needed is an increased international effort. A problem highlighted also by Fausto de Stefani, coordinator of a laudable development project in the village of Kirtipur, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, where thanks to the help of many supporters he has built the Rarahil Memorial School, one of the most efficient education centres in the country as of today. «One of the main problems post-earthquake is the absence of the international community. Of course, there are NGOs, foundations and volunteers at work, but most governments do little», De Stefani explained when we met during the event “Nepal: between dreams and reality” organised in collaboration with SAT and Montura. We therefore conclude the article with the words of the Mantuan climber: «Nepal is a country on its knees, where issues which taken singularly are serious enough, but if combined they represent a tragedy».