Industry insiders say the fate of the upcoming climbing season rests on what approach the government takes to welcome tourists.
On February 20, when Pasang Tendi Sherpa landed in Nepal, he had just wrapped up a two-month-long climbing expedition on Mount Aconcagua in Argentina. The next mountain on his list was Everest.
Tendi, a certified guide of the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations, works as a mountain guide for TAG Nepal, a Kathmandu-based outdoor outfitter. Internationally certified mountain guides like Tendi are in high demand during Nepal’s spring and autumn climbing seasons, and most of them spend months in the mountains, away from their families.
For Tendi, this year was not going to be any different. Then came Covid-19.
“I have been out of work since returning from Argentina,” said Tendi.
The spring climbing season, which begins in March, this year coincided with the beginning of lockdown. On March 20, the government banned all passengers, including Nepalis, from entering the country from the European Union territories, including the United Kingdom, West Asia, Gulf countries and countries like Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, South Korea and Japan. Four days later, on March 24, the government imposed a complete lockdown.
The lockdown forced dozens of companies to cancel their expeditions booked months ago. The cancellation of mountaineering expeditions left around 20,000 tours, trekking and mountain guides out of job, according to industry insiders.
But expedition companies were hopeful for autumn, which begins in September and lasts until November. The country’s peak tourism season, which attracts a third of the total 1.2 million tourists visiting Nepal, does not generally draw tourists for Mount Everest, but hordes of adventure seekers come to trek. Many small peaks see heavy traffic during the autumn season.
In addition to treks to the Everest Base Camp, thousands of tourists travel across the country to various remote valleys and peaks, giving a much-needed boost to the local economies while employing nearly half a million Nepalis, mostly as trekking and mountaineering guides.
On July 21, the government decided to lift the lockdown allowing hotels and restaurants, trekking and mountaineering companies to prepare for the autumn season. They were reopened on July 30. The scheduled domestic and international flights, however, were planned to open by August 17. Hope was growing strong.
But since lifting the lockdown, there has been a steady rise in coronavirus cases.
On Monday, the government said that international and domestic flights will remain suspended until August 31.
Industry stakeholders–from high-altitude workers to guides and porters to lodging and fooding companies–are now deeply worried about the future.
When Tendi returned from Argentina, his plan was to rest for two weeks before getting ready for Everest. For the spiring’s Everest expedition, his employer TAG Nepal had 32 climbers from all over the world.
“To support them, we had a team of 200 people, which included mountain guides, high-altitude sherpas, cooks, kitchen boys, porters” Tendi told the Post. “From our company’s Everest expedition alone, the lockdown meant 200 people losing their source of livelihood.”