Should you pay an inflated entrance fee to a tourist area?
You head down to Kathmandu’s Durbar square. The most famous heritage area among this old city’s long list of cultural charms. Old Newari buildings stand beside red bricked temples, a palace, a goddess’ house, a few places of worship and a giant public courtyard that’s an intersection to many more important areas of the city.
A guard approaches you with the word “ticket?” Without one you are escorted to a little wooden hut whereupon another man starts to tear off a ticket stub before you can even ask how much.
“750 rupees!” (2016 update- it’s now 1000!)
At first you think the guards are trying to cheat you and keep a little cash for themselves. But no this is the official 2013 price to enter or pass through Kathmandu Durbar Square. To me it’s a rip-off price with little to back it up. It’s also going to get worse … unless we start asking questions. (update to this article on Kathmandu Durbar Square price is here)
The fast rise of official entry fees to heritage sites in Nepal
In 2007 a foreigner had to pay 200 rupees if they wanted to enter Kathmandu Durbar Square or even to cross over it to the other side. In 2009 – 300 rupees, in 2010 – 400 rupees, in 2011 it was Nepal’s failed year of tourism which suspended prices increases, in 2012/2013 – 750 rupees (1000)! SAARC residents are 150 rupees and Nepalese are free.
- Pashupatinath is now a staggering
500(1000) rupees for foreigners and you can’t even officially visit inside the actual Pashupatinath temple. Free for SAARC and Nepalese. While during Shiveratri it’s 1000 rupees for all to enter!
- Bhaktapur is whopping great 1100 rupees to foreigners or 100 for SAARC/ Chinese. (rumored to rise very soon)
- Patan is
200rupees for foreigners or 25 rupees for SAARC (again rumored to rise soon – it went to 500 and is soon to rise again).
- Chitwan NationalPark is
500(1,500) rupees per day. This price is currently undergoing an evaluation and set to rise soon with a new 3 day pricing tier.
- Lumbini is
50(200) rupees but doesn’t include a camera fee or entry into the Maya Devi temple. In other words foreigners bring 200+ rupees. Indians and Nepalese pay token fees. (in fairness to Lumbini they do tell you it’s a flat 200 rupees – rather than adding up all the little add-on’s later)
- Swayanbunath is 200 rupees for foreigners and Chinese while SAARC are charged 50 rupees.
- It’s worth noting that in 2015 13% VAT was added to all National Park fees in Nepal – who are supported with tax money anyway. There were no reasons given for this.
If you look closely at the fee structure there’s a trend to always charge “foreigners” a greatly increased fee. With Chinese sometimes getting away with discounted fees. While SAARC get greatly discounted fees and Nepalese nearly always are free.
Strangely whilst recent “western foreigner” tourist numbers are on the decline in Nepal their fees are jumping up. While SAARC tourist numbers are on the increase their fees remain relatively low in comparison.
Do read on later as I’ll let you know how to avoid paying some of these fees repeatedly and avoid them in other cases.
Are foreigners paying for the up keep of Nepal’s national heritage sites?
I’ll go back to Kathmandu’s Durbar Square as a prime example of price hiking gone mad. Back in 2007 Durbar square looks exactly like it does today. The same little white taxis zoom illegally through it along with a bevy of private cars and motorcycles. Small stalls are set up on battered temple steps selling everything from flowers to groceries.
Indeed it would seem on the outside that my 200 rupee 2007 fee & my 2012/2013 750 (2015/16 1000) rupee ticket still pays for … well not much of an upkeep to the area.
Perhaps they painted a temple while I was away? There’s nothing to say they did but maybe they did something …
No, to be fair I have read about the discovery of ancient boxes and safes in Durbar Square. Please note these are not “excavations” but actually involved the unlocking of store rooms. So it’s more about rooting around for keys than digging up ancient artifacts. Still I’m sure it cost a lot to bring in a locksmith.
Perhaps there are one or two less taxis parked in the square in the early morning than in 2007? Maybe not.
Maybe there’s a new cordoned off area for tourists to pass through this main thoroughfare on the way to New Road? Or the southern quarter of the city without having to take a huge detour or pay the entrance fee to get through this public junction? No … you still have to pay.
Now mirror this with say Bhaktapur Durbar square which remains relatively pristine since 2007 with an unchanged albeit high price. You also get a lot more for your entry fee than in Kathmandu. No traffic and a much, much larger area to explore.
I truly do think the Kathmandu Durbar square price hikes are an absolute rip-off of the highest order.
Who is paying for restoration and maintenance of Nepal’s heritage sites?
Good question. And one that’s got a hideous amount of answers. Basically the funding is coming from many different areas from government to private sector to overseas development funds. It all depends on the site, its background and who is involved.
A prime example of restoration through tourism funds comes from the Bhaktapur pricing structure whereby 1000 rupees goes towards the heritage sites restoration scheme. (500 rupees is meant to be going from the new Kathmandu Durbar square pricing scheme into its restoration).
I now just have to wonder where the other 500 and 250 rupees per tourist are going if not for restoration? Ah yes, “administration”
The problem is there’s little documentation about these projects. You are simply asked to pay an increased fee with no indication on where the money is going.
Now couple that with independent groups like the Kathmandu Valley Preservation Fund (USA based) who have carried out a lot of restoration work in Patan. Or the recent restoration of Swayambhunath temple which was funded by the Nyingma Trust (USA based).
Now the whole restoration process starts to get a little confused and crowded again. Who’s paying for what, where, when and why?
And if all these “foreign” organisations are paying for the restoration of some of Nepal’s heritage sites then what’s with the entrance fee price hikes? Dare I even mention the excessive “foreigner” entry fees directed at the same people who have helped fund their very restoration!
A lot more explanation is needed by the powers that be in Nepal in regards to where exactly all this money is going?
Tourist prices or plain old rip-off prices for everyone?
Throughout all this I do however understand the whole “lower prices for Nepalese” pricing structure.
Nepal is an impoverished country with the majority of people simply living day-to-day.
But this does not work by saying locals should not have to pay if you do not stand by this methodology.
During the Shiveratri festival everyone is charged 1000 rupees to enter the Pashupatinath temple.
Now 1000 rupees to enter a religious temple on a religious day of celebration to me is just wrong. It’s kind of like charging Christians extra to go to church on Christmas day. India does not charge to visit Buddha’s pilgrimage sites yet Nepal does. Why?
Moreover what average local can truly pay 1000 rupees? None. It’s the rich Nepalese and well to do that can afford this.
Someone is cashing in on this religious festival.
An official stated in 2011 that the price hike was to discourage so many people from attending Pashupatinath and control numbers. This clearly has not worked with local Hindus still showing up and queuing to worship near the temple instead of inside it.
However the pricing still stands even though its methodology is a failure.
There’s insult to injury here too if you are a Hindu foreigner wanting to visit Pashupatinath temple in which case your skin color alone will dictate whether you are allowed in or not depending on who’s on duty that day. Ah yes, back to good old blatant racist/discriminatory standards again. But let’s not go there today.
Local souvenir vendors are also feeling the strain as tourists stay away from high-ticket priced sites like Durbar Square in Kathmandu (source).
Nepal’s slippery slope of trying to cash in on tourists
There’s no doubt these price hikes to tourist sites lack substance. They are controlled by local councils rather than a single national heritage or tourism body. While places like Bhaktapur and Swayanbunath have seen maintenance and restoration others like Kathmandu Durbar square clearly have not whilst places like Chitwan are locked in entry fee debates for the past two years.
It all seems to boil down to how much local authorities can squeeze out of tourists, and to a degree locals, alike before noticing a drop in numbers.
Complaints certainly don’t get lodged or are “not found” that easily. Check out various travel forums about prices in Nepal and you will see people discussing how expensive Nepal is becoming. However look closer to the complaints and it’s really more about the rip-off pricing structures than actually how expensive it’s becoming.
After paying 1/3 more on a public bus to travel somewhere in Nepal as a foreigner we must then settle for the indignity of paying more than anyone else to enter a public area that happens to be a heritage site.
Moreover there’s a good chance its restoration money came from overseas in the first place!
A solution to the ever-increasing tiered tourist fees in Nepal
1) Someone’s got to take sole responsibility for all of this. No more local councils dictating and bickering over fees. You have a heritage department – make the officials work for once and have them work out the maintenance costs of these zones and price accordingly.
2) Remove this discriminatory tier pricing. No more separate Foreigner/SAARC/Chinese/ Nepalese terminology or fee structures. A simple Non-National(non-Nepalese) and National(Nepalese) terminology with a local fee structure should suffice.
3) Explain on the ticket what percentage of the fee is going into the preservation of the heritage site. Likewise put up a plaque beside a restored building saying where the money came from to restore it. You never know, tourists might even want to donate more if they knew exactly where their money was going!
4) Want to get really technical? Charge wealthy Nepalese above a certain income a heritage tax to preserve their own buildings. Use zonal residence or work permits or whatever. But there are wealthy Nepalese who can pay. So when they drive up in their big SUV’s honking people off the road and demanding attention let’s be sure they are at least paying for the privilege of doing so.
A budget tourists solution to avoiding Nepal entry fees
If you really are a budget backpacker or tourist then you already know what to do in order to avoid a lot of these fees. If not then here are some basic hints and tips.
- Go early. The ticket offices generally only open at 8am and close at 5pm. Before or after that you should be able to walk on in.
- If you are staying in Nepal or want to visit a heritage site more than once than go to the ticket office with your passport and a passport photograph. Your ticket can be stamped to allow you access to these sites for the duration of your visa. Just don’t lose that ticket with your dates stamped onto them!
- Most of Nepal’s heritage sites don’t exactly have great patrols.
However the best thing a tourist can do is spend some time trying to contact the Nepalese governments heritage department (under Archaeology Ministry) and ask where exactly your money is going before you go.
There’s also a feedback section on the Nepalese tourism website. I’ve never had a reply – maybe you’ll get lucky.
You could support the Digital Archeology Foundation in its efforts to help digitally preserve these monuments before they are gone.
The future of Nepal’s heritage sites
No matter the price the protection of these buildings and sites is very important to not just Nepal but to the world. Doing something rather than just paying out and not knowing where your money going is something I believe in.
So perhaps the first real step Nepalese officials could take is to tell us exactly where our ever-increasing “foreigner” entry fees go towards protecting and restoring these precious heritage sites?
I’ve written a related follow-up to this the sad state of Kathmandu Durbar Square in 2016.
This is an additional article highlighting tourist entry fees and Nepalese heritage sites
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