07 March, 2010

Un-Naturally Nepal


I rarely watch TV — guilty admission, I don’t own one. So when I got my hands on a remote control and flipped the channel, I was agape to see an ad in an international channel. People sailed off cliffs in paragliders, rushed through mountains in sleek bikes, and jumped through empty space tied to bungee cords. Thumping techno music held me spellbound. An ad for an extreme athletic event, I imagined. Then the familiar voice (Bhusan Dahal?) announced: Naturally Nepal, Once is Not Enough!

You will forgive me if this ad came as a shock — as I said, I don’t own a TV, and rarely watch it. I was surprised on three counts. First, it appears the ad linked Nepal as a destination — not of culture, not of nature, not of friendly people with great hospitality, but a place where testosterone-laden men (and women) could unload some of their twentieth century instincts to live life on the edge by indulging in extreme sports. Of course, bungee, paragliding and mountain biking are possibly safe activities that one can enjoy greatly with friends and with family — if your family tends to be on the highly athletic side. Taken by themselves, they are also profitable for a small number of entrepreneurs. Nepal has always been a destination for adventurers — and now, why not promote it to this specific demographics of twenties to thirties, affluent, two-week vacation, thrill-seeking visitors?

Secondly, I was surprised by the “once is not enough.” Surely people don’t come to bungee jump over and over — isn’t it a one time event? Surely thrill seekers don’t seek the same thrills, by the very definition of being thrill seekers?

And thirdly, that slogan, which stresses “Naturally” with such natural aplomb, doesn’t seem to be tied to anything natural on the ground. Of course, Nepal abounds in nature. But we are on our way to destroying all of it within the next decade or two with plastic, unprocessed garbage, and the glossy, fast-paced life that goes along with life lived on the edge. Pardon my cynicism, but have the government and Nepal Tourism Board, which are making pronouncements of attracting millions of visitors to Nepal, give a single thought to how the tourist industry may choke and die on its own unexamined growth?

Thousands of partially empty restaurants, hotel rooms, and cybers line the lakeside in Pokhara right now — many waiting for elusive Israelis who’ve decided not to come this year. The cyber owner who has stuck Hebrew letters on his keyboard thinks Nepal’s political instability keeps them away. I tell him about the global financial crisis and he says, suddenly understanding that factors other than local may affect tourist behaviour: “I never heard anything about this till today.”

So there you go. One year you invest lakhs on starting a cyber, the next year nobody shows up to use it. In Nepal, translate that to thousands of businesses in Pokhara’s lakeside, selling goods and services that they imagine an ideal tourist wanting. Their rooms are all Rs.500, and the Internet all says Rs.60 per hour. But who wants it? The people who came before came for the quietitude of a small place with great hospitality, and of course, nature. Now it’s a Third World dumpheap where large, empty shacks jostle each other to provide peeling tables buzzing with flies, or beds covered with dirty linen. And only Rs.500. Yum, how appetising.

Does the NTB know that tourists won’t come unless entrepreneurs learn the basics of hospitality — cleanliness before concrete? People may prefer a bamboo shack that’s clean to a concrete mansion that’s dirty? Does it have the political acumen to ban plastic around heritage areas? Would it provide environmental protection and nature appreciation courses to its entrepreneurs? Or will it just spend its money on expensive, testosterone-fueled ads?

The lakeside which I remember from two decades ago has shrunk to about twenty-five percent. But people, relentless, can’t stop building — footpaths next to the lake, a road going right across, a sewage processing hole in the ground choked with plastic. The hills across the lake are deforested. I can guess, with a fair degree of certainty, that Fewatal will shrink to a toxic puddle within the next fifty years if there’s no regulation. People, greedy for growth, will choke off the very lake that feeds them.

But does the government care? Are there national environmental regulations which restrict growth of this nature around natural heritage sites like Fewatal? I doubt it. We Nepalis won’t be satisfied till we destroy the lake — and then when it’s a sewer, we will still come and take photographs besides it, unaware of what we just lost.

“Lots of overbuilding and lots of garbage,” says an Italian couple staying at Fishtail Lodge when I question them on their perception of Pokhara.

“That’s development, that can’t be stopped,” says a journalist with vehemence when I say that there seems to be a great deal of building going on in Pokhara. “You know, the Italians and Spanish still keep their old buildings,” I tell the journalist. “They have vineyards where they grow grapes and people go to see these places. They stay in old buildings from hundreds of years ago. Millions of people would choose to go to Italy or Spain over Nepal any day because they still keep their agricultural and architectural and natural heritages.” The journalist pouted. No doubt he thought I was being elite.

Who is asking the question: is this the right model of growth for tourism? Ironically, Nepal Tourism Board seems unaware that its high end tourists, who spend money to stay at hotels like the Hyatt, come for spiritual reasons. They come to partake of ancient cultures of spiritual learning and philosophies. They come for discreet lectures and workshops given by rimpoches and khenpos (thank you, China, for handing over your most precious living cultural treasures to us and boosting our tourist industry.) These high-end tourists, please note, are seeking a spiritual vacation in direct contradiction to the lifestyle NTB promotes on air.

How can Nepal attract tourists without destroying the very life people come to see? As the government shifts into high gear to promote “Village Tourism”, which more and more people talk about with great enthusiasm, I would say it’s central for all entrepreneurs involved in the tourist sector to come together to make and promote nature conservation and preservation laws.

The kind of environmental regulations and protections that exist in Europe and the US doesn’t exist in Nepal. Nepal’s greatest treasure is nature — lakes, rivers, mountains. Tourists will come once for the fame of Nepal. But if we want them to repeat their visits, we may have to rethink the model of Nepal from testosterone-driven adventure hellhole to a beautiful space where nature and garbage get equal respect. “Naturally Nepal” could have been a great slogan for environmental tourism — a growth industry. At its best, it is an artificial slogan for a limited sports industry that attracts a small demographics.

Let the word “nature” return to its original meaning — green trees, fresh water, live fish, biodegradable articles of daily use. Let’s celebrate Nepal for these treasures, not just for its potential to pump adrenaline. Who knows? Maybe the few paragliding tourists will swell to far larger percentages if Nepal took care of its true nature.


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