Ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and involves interpretation and education” according to The International Ecotourism Society, (www.ecotourism.org). Following this definition, Nepal definitely falls under the most fitting for ecotourism category; with most of the tourist attractions being natural, formed by natural processes without human interferences. Nepal occupies a very small global area, but in this small area we have the climate ranging from tropical in the south to the tundra and alpine in the north. So, we have a very unique place having such a diverse climatic condition in a very small space. Thousands of plants and animals are found that are completely endemic to Nepal. While many countries build various kinds of reservoirs and pools, to bring in visitors and beautify their country, we naturally have them. According to the tourism statistics of 2014 too, the highest number of visitors were to national parks, then to Pashupati, lumbini, Manaslu trekking, Mustang trekking, Humla trekking, Lower Dolpa, Upper Dolpa, Kanchanjunga trekking. We can see that the most popular destinations are to natural places, and through least carbon footprint.
I got a chance to talk to Mr. Dinesh Raj Joshi, the CEO of the Nepal Tourism Board about the ecotourism scenario in Nepal. The ecotourism is linked with sustainable tourism most of the time, and deals with how the nature conservation, recreation, learning, and development of the place go hand in hand. Mr. Joshi claims Nepal to be a pure ecotourism destination, the fact that all the touristic places are a pure natural set up. The forests in Nepal covers about 29% of the area, and consists of thousands of different species of plants and animals, and even thousands that are endemic only to Nepal. Even since thousands of years ago, since the time of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa and Hillary Edmund, people have been practicing eco tourism, going on natural hikes, treks, and learning about the natural places and the local people. It was practiced since before the term was coined at around 80s. Then there was also another time when there were many hippies coming and visiting Nepal. No matter the kind of revolutions that happened, or the season wise attraction changes that occurred, the tourism sector has always been busy in Nepal, and almost all of the tourism destinations are natural, may it be the wildlife safari, or natural trails. The protected areas have also been very effective in promoting nature tourism. Our jungles are full of life, full of flora and fauna, and many different kinds of birds. Mr. Joshi gave the example of Annapurna trekking area, the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, which is regarded and studied as a very successful case study of eco tourism.
Much effort is being put now to promote ecotourism. The eco tourism does not include just travel to natural process, but also requires the development of the local peoples. Most of the places in Nepal have their own specialty, for eg. Apples in mustang, cheese from the Himalayas, etc. and all these products are also being promoted to uplift the local life. Some laws relating to eco-tourism has also been formulated. But how well it is implemented is still a question.
While studying about ecotourism, I also met Mr. Sunil Sharma from NTB, who emphasizes that eco tourism should be very interactive. He started our session with a very simple question, if you go to any natural place as a trekker, and I go to the same place as an eco-tourist, what would be the difference between you and me? So, turns out, while I as a trekker would just trek, look around and come back, he, as an eco tourist would spend a lot more time knowing about the place, the kinds of flora and fauna present there, the locals that live there, their livelihood, and in fact everything about the place. If he met any locals on his way, he would chat with them and get to know as many things about the culture and the nature there as possible. His explanation made ecotourism easier to understand. It is a lot more interactive, it is more immersive, and it should benefit the locals too.
Ecotourism is sustainable tourism that focuses on preserving and protecting the natural system. The high number of tourist visiting our nature always exerts pressure on the place. Evidences can be the excessive amount of solid wastes in the mountain trails and foothills, diminishing culture in some places, disappearances of indigenous communities, etc. As such, it is very important to have a close relation between the local people, policy makers, tourism board of directors and travel agencies. Nowadays, many travel agencies are also trying to be more environmental friendly and are going green. Some by banning plastics, bringing back the wastes, making their packages more environmentally friendly and reducing their carbon footprint.
One of such examples is the Himalayan Friends Trekking, whose founder Mr. Phuri Kitar Sherpa, also talked to me about the strategies that he is adopting to make his packages more nature friendly. Most of the trekking done by his agency is to the Himalayan regions, and these are the regions facing the pressure, in the form of increased wastes, deforestation, etc. The agency has therefore completely banned the use of plastic, and also brings back the waste generated, leaving no trace behind. Also, he takes all the trekkers to interact with the locals as well and give them descriptions about the nature and peoples livelihoods too. Even the food provided are the local delicacy of the place. Mustang is also among the regions facing the impacts of climate change and Mr. Sherpa is completely aware of the fact, and includes talks about these impacts too.
And Himalayan Friends Trekking is only an example among many other agencies who have adopted similar procedures. This only makes the experiences more enriching for the tourist, as not only they will be having the time of their lives and learning about the environment and culture of the place, but they will also be improving the local’s revenue in the process, and all this while posing the least possible threat to the environment.