Identity, Tourism, and Sustainability

Suniti Thapa is OneSeed’s amazing summer intern.  This is her second guest blog.

Suniti is an Economics concentrator at Harvard University. She has spent her summers working in a micro-finance organization in Northern India and researching the impact of Maoist Civil War on social and economic well-being of Nepali women. Her experiences have strengthened her passion for economic empowerment through enterprise development. Suniti is also working as the Director of Outreach and Partnership (Nepal) with Udhyami Nepali, a non-profit that helps Nepali social entrepreneurs get off the ground. She is a Nepali citizen.

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An economy cannot grow without focusing on the strongest suits it possesses. The theory of comparative advantage is the key to development in today’s world. Nepal has, in the past three decades, been very well known in the western world as a tourist destination that offers a stark contrast to the busy modern lives that of the western world. The seventies were the start, when dope-smoking hippies imagined the Shangri-la in the hills and mountains of our little country, and spent months backpacking and philosophizing about the existential crisis that drove them away from the west. This trend continued and visits to Nepal expanded to other groups until the 1990s when Nepal earned a significant portion of its national income from tourism services.

Identity Issues

The Maoist War cut short Nepal’s rise as a tourist destination. After fifteen years of political upheaval and unbalanced economic growth, Nepal’s identity as a tourist destination is unclear today. Nepal’s idyllic charm remains intact in the hills, mountains and plains around the country and yet, Nepal does not attract as many travelers as it should given the unique geographical and natural settings it possesses.

The key to further development of Nepali tourism lies in the country’s ability to identify its relative strengths, target market and institute appropriate policies to attract more tourists. The distance from major western cities is a reality that will not change. Nepal cannot be a direct replacement for the beaches of the Caribbean for many reasons. As a Nepali citizen, I believe that Nepal can offer distinct travel experiences to a diverse group of tourists that most other countries in the world cannot. The incredible geographical and biological diversity that encompasses the Terai plains and the Himalayan Mountains in such a small area is as unique as it gets. Given such strengths, it is the collective responsibility of the government, tourism industry and the general public to coherently enhance and package these strengths to potential travelers.

Trade-offs

This process will be fraught with tradeoffs because tourism’s coexistence with the local environment is not always happy. Around the world, there have been cases of infrastructure developments that create a tourism boom and yet displace local communities. Governments around the world have been known to short change the environment if the state revenues keep piling up. Nepal cannot let that happen. Nepal’s critical need is to maximize tourism profits in a manner that is sustainable.

What is Sustainability?

Sustainability should encompass two different dimensions, the first being the fact that tourism development should protect the environment and local livelihoods rather than destroy them. OneSeed Expeditions is a part of this movement, as we harness the existing revenue stream from trekking to benefit local communities. Given that these are the communities that are on the receiving end of tourism’s negative consequences, this is a small and yet significant step. Recently, the use of solar power in trekking lodges has started so as to avoid deforestation. This is another step. Many such steps need to be taken. On the other hand, Nepal’s tourism industry should become strong enough to weather random shocks in tourists’ tastes. This will take time to build.

A Middle Path?

I see a middle path on the goals of revenue maximization and sustainability. It is possible to build roads for certain areas while leaving the outreaches pristine. The local communities deserve proper roads and other infrastructures as long as these developments are not harmful to the environment in the long haul. This is the path that OneSeed attempts to work within, as the livelihoods of the guides are strengthened alongside the economic empowerment of females in the community. Eco-tourism is another such initiative that I will talk about in later blogs. A middle path that encompasses many such initiatives is possible and probably Nepal’s best option, as it retains Nepal’s multiple identities to potential tourist groups, while balancing the country’s revenue needs. After all, Nepal is the land of Gautam Buddha.