Nepal’s tourism will be key to its recovery

Before and after: At left, Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square, as seen by Patricia Schultz during her recent visit. At right, old temples in the Bhaktapur Durbar Square collapsed as a result of the earthquake on April 25.
Before and after: At left, Bhaktapur’s Durbar Square, as seen by Patricia Schultz during her recent visit. At right, old temples in the Bhaktapur Durbar Square collapsed as a result of the earthquake on April 25. Photo Credit: Lindsay Cope and Aapo Huhta/Finnish Red Cross

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I left Nepal just one month ago, bidding the small Himalayan country one last “Namaste.” The universally recognized word, expressing both hello and goodbye, is spoken and/or expressed in the graceful gesture of folded hands.

Today, the country reels from the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that struck on April 25 in both the center of the country and the heart of every traveler lucky enough to have experienced its beauty.

So far, there are no definitive assessments of the extent of damage to Nepal’s tourism infrastructure, but it is clearly extensive, threatening a huge and lasting financial loss, given the crucial role tourism plays in the country’s economy, just as it faces years of rebuilding.

One of the poorest countries in Asia, the tiny Wisconsin-sized nation has suffered a long string of setbacks. It is still struggling to overcome the legacy of a disabling 10-year Maoist insurrection that ended in 2006, and since becoming a republic in 2008, a fractious Nepali government has been unable to ratify a new constitution.

“The only thing holding the country together, it often seems, is the strength, humor and tenacity of the Nepali people themselves,” said Jeff Greenwald, the California-based journalist and author of “Shopping for Buddhas: An Adventure in Nepal,” one of his three books set in the country.

While I had seen just a glimpse of Nepal and its hospitable people during my too-brief, one-week visit, Greenwald has considered it a second home for 30 years.

“This disaster tears at the roots of their society and will be very challenging to overcome,” Greenwald said.

The staggering numbers that describe the toll, complemented by graphic photos, have filled international media in much the same way as other natural disasters that have rocked our planet in the recent past.

As of late last week, Nepal officials estimated that the earthquake had claimed more than 5,000 lives, and that number is expected to double as cleanup and triage operations continue. It also destroyed 70,000 homes, left more than 10,000 people injured and 200,000 homeless. It left 1 million children in need of critical care and triggered an avalanche that killed 19 people (14 of them Sherpas) on Mount Everest.

Best estimates suggest that some 8 million of the country’s 29 million population have been affected.

“Aside from the human tragedy,” Greenwald reminded me last week, “there’s a cultural disaster to contend with, as well.”

Nepal, specifically Kathmandu and the Kathmandu Valley, have one of the world’s highest concentrations of Unesco World Heritage Sites. Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur are each anchored by a Durbar (Royal) Square at their heart, studded with centuries-old palaces and multi-tiered temples, many of which are now in rubble. There is still no word about whether or when any of those treasures can be rebuilt.

On top of that, there is a constant threat of looting.

In the best of times, arriving at the Kathmandu Tribhuvan Airport after an interminable flight from the other side of the world can feel a lot like time travel. Today, the images coming out of the country suggest it is chaotic and log-jammed, with tons of relief and medical supplies arriving from all over the world, with China and India jockeying for favorite-neighbor status.

The supplies are urgently needed in remote and isolated villages, many of which have been flattened and whose access roads, where any survived, have been blocked by landslides. Special-strength tents will be needed to shelter displaced victims from the monsoon season, just a few weeks away.

In stark contrast, we had stayed in luxurious surroundings, guests of the well-known Dwarika’s Hotel, eschewing the western ambience of the city’s Hyatt Regency or Crowne Plaza for a self-contained world that exuded local character.

An enclave of traditional architecture, the award-winning boutique hotel was the passion of visionary Dwarika Das Shrestha. I was relieved to hear that it had escaped serious earthquake damage, as had its new sister property in the nearby hills outside of town.

Dwarika’s daughter, Sangita Einhaus, and her staff made sure the hotel’s foreign guests sleeping in the open courtyardwere safe and comfortable and were treated and cared for as if family.

Outside of town, the country club-like Gokarna Forest Resort, where we had lodged just weeks before, now serves as a refuge for hundreds of displaced families. Most sleep under tarps along the roadside, in open lots or on the city’s parade grounds.

Author Patricia Schultz with the Crown Prince of Lo Manthang on her recent visit to Nepal.
Author Patricia Schultz with the Crown Prince of Lo Manthang on her recent visit to Nepal. Photo Credit: Mollie Fitzgerald/Frontiers Travel

We had been introduced to the religious rite of cremation at Pashupatinath, the gilded-roofed temple to Shiva and the country’s holiest Hindu site. The temple, which also escaped earthquake damage, has long been a major pilgrimage destination, with pyres along the banks of the sacred Bagmati River, a tributary of the Ganges. The place was busy with cremations the day we visited; now it is said they are taking place around the clock as well as en masse across Kathmandu.

More of the spirituality woven into this small mountain nation is on view at the Boudhanath Stupa, possibly the largest in Asia and partially damaged by the earthquake, and the epicenter for the large Tibetan Buddhist refugee community in Nepal, a group of people who now risk being displaced twice in their lifetimes.

It is a swirling world of monks and devotees performing their ritual perambulation (walking clockwise) around the white-washed stupa wreathed with rainbow-hued prayer flags, turning prayer wheels on their way. It was one of many times we were touched by the country’s deep attachment to time-tested religious ways, something that will be sorely needed in the months and years ahead.

We had come as a small fam trip for American Virtuoso and Signature travel agents (accompanied by one token travel writer). The destination management company that hosted our trip, Mumbai-based Ventours International, had long been aware of Nepal’s exceptional attractions and had created a once-in-a-lifetime itinerary that whisked us around by helicopter to 14,000-foot peaks for an alfresco breakfast overlooking Everest, then over staggeringly beautiful landscapes to the little-visited ancient kingdom of Mustang.

Situated on the Chinese border with Tibet and until recently ruled by the same family, whose members can trace their lineage to the 14th century, Mustang is said to be even more Tibetan than Tibet itself.

Nepal’s tourism industry is the engine of its economy: One of every nine Nepali is involved. Some 585,000 international visitors arrived by air in 2014.

Those who come for trekking and mountaineering (the Annapurna area near the lakeside town of Pokhara, Nepal’s trekking hub, was relatively undamaged) will likely be the first to return when the post-earthquake dust settles. Four hundred climbers arrive annually to attempt reaching Everest’s summit, paying tens of thousands of dollars.

The larger issue is going to be long-term recovery efforts, which by some accounts will take three to five years. So how can you help? A good place to start is with any reputable international charity such as Unicef, Nepal Red Cross Society, Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam International, Habitat for Humanity and — Greenwald’s preference — Mercy Corps. Each of those groups has people already on the ground in Nepal.

“Yes, the short-term tourism will clearly suffer badly,” said Dr. Antonia Neubauer, founder of Myths and Mountains, who has been offering trips to Nepal since 1988. “But come the fall, returning will be very important to the people.”

Neil D’Souza, the co-founder of Ventours International, agreed, predicting that  “Kathmandu will pick itself up, clean up its infrastructure and create a good administration.”

Travel Weekly Contributing Editor Patricia Schultz is the author of the New York Times best-seller “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.”

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