“In spite of raising visa fees and charging money at every place, we still haven’t been able to provide appropriate services in return”- Navaraj Dahal
Navaraj Dahal, President of Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal (TAAN) has spent more than 28 years in the field of mountain tourism in Nepal. He sat down with travreport.com for an interview on the issues faced by the trekking sector.
The trekking will be back soon. How is TAAN preparing for the upcoming season?
TAAN is an umbrella association of trekking agencies in the country, it has always advocated for the betterment of trekking agencies. Right now TAAN is lobbying for strategies and is trying to figure out how to manage loopholes and hurdles in our systems and working towards solving it. We are focusing on maintaining strong relations between the agencies and labourers. It’s the government’s job to bring in as many tourists as they can.
What exactly are the loopholes and hurdles you are talking about?
The main problem now is that tourists come to Nepal and go trekking on their own. They don’t take guides with them, even when they take guides and porters along they go trekking illegally, forming groups with people they know. They go on adventures from their own INGO’s and NGO’S. This proves to be one of the biggest headaches for licensed agencies.
We want that after getting permits, tourist should only be allowed to go trekking with licensed agencies along with trained guides and helpers. Except for regions like Humla, Mustang, Dolpa, Kanchenjunga, Manaslu et cetera they don’t usually go through agencies. Another problem we have is that Mustang and Dolpa regions have a very high permit rate, which is valid for a fixed period that the government allows. Agencies like us, think that rather than giving permits for the whole trekking period, the permits should be granted for the number of days the tourists intend to trek and keep the price reasonable. It would be nice if the permit costs were dropped a little. However, that has not happened yet.
The trekking business is highly dependent upon porters. They used to have a tax exemption on using their mules but now the government has decided to impose taxes on them and on top of that they also have to pay compensation for all the years that the tax was exempted. This is a huge problem for us right now. We’ve lobbied against this in all the respective ministries but this problem hasn’t been addressed so far.
The trekking infrastructure that had been destroyed by the earthquake still hasn’t been repaired even after four years. The expansion of motorways have damaged many trekking trails, we are yet to establish alternative trails for them.
TAAN feels a huge disappointment with Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) as well. NTB failed to promote tourism in a way that would enhance the trekking business. Trekkers’ Information Management System (TIMS) had been implemented jointly by Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) and Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN) to ensure the safety and security of trekkers and to control illegal trekking operations as well as facilitate rescue operations during an emergency. The funds from TIMS were to be used jointly by NTB and TAAN. But NTB has held back a huge amount of money which could have been used for development and promotion.
What are your plans for VNY 2020 and how do you intend to implement a successful tourism year for Nepal? How do you think the preparations are going?
VNY 2020 has been announced at the right time. The earlier VNY’s 1990 and 2011 were partially successful and played an important role in tourism promotion to Nepal. At the time Nepal had an unstable government, violent political riots and only limited focus was given to tourism. But now we have a stable government. The country has been emphasising on tourism, businesses are more aware now. The public and private sector are efficiently working hand in hand.
However, there have been some weaknesses in the campaign. The ground level agencies and businesses are yet to be effectively included in the campaign. VNY 2020 is not just tourism, each and every sector needs to play an important role to make it a success. Everyone should have a feeling of ownership regarding the campaign and there should be no politicisation. We’re trying to bring tourists who can uplift the economy and generate income. NTB needs to rise from the limited people and take everybody along with them.
It would also be more effective if a new tourism minister was appointed soon as common people can’t go and meet the Prime Minister with our grievances easily. The government has declared 100 new destinations out of which TAAN is working on 30 destinations. We are trying to introduce them as new products by 2020.
Another issue is raising visa fees and collecting money at everyplace. However, we have not been able to provide appropriate services in return. This is really something that we should seriously look into.
What has TAAN done about new trekking routes and destinations? What plans are there for new products and experiences?
New destinations have not really come up. We’ve been spending resources on discovering new routes and destinations but most of our efforts have been futile. What is the use of new destinations if people won’t go there at all.
The guerrilla trail, Shey Phoksundo along with some other places in the far western region can be promoted as new destinations. There are projects going on to figure out new places like the seven passes and promoting them through content writing and itineraries. Some places need infrastructure development while others just need promotion. We are looking into it.
Climate change is an ever-growing concern. What is TAAN doing about eco-friendly and responsible trekking? Do you think over-tourism is a concern for Nepal?
Let me give an example of Estonia. Estonia has a population of 1.5 million whereas 1.6 million tourists visit the country every year. So no, with proper planning and precaution over tourism will not be a problem for Nepal.
However, we have to build infrastructure and facilities proportionally. If we start working now, we can achieve a lot in a year. If we talk about climate change and environment, the quality of tourists can only be maintained by making proper policies. The country needs to really up it’s policy game. The private sector is always ready to invest. The contribution from tourism 20 years ago and now is still the same.
Tourism is still lacking government emphasis. TAAN has always worked for the betterment of tourism in the country, still, we haven’t been able to work satisfactorily. Nepal needs to understand the role that trekking agencies have in the inflow of tourists.