Nepal needs a better trekker management system than TIMS

TIMS card from Nepal
A TIMS Card from Nepal
A TIMS Registration card is what is meant to help trekkers stay safe when trekking in Nepal … but does it actually work?

Nepal’s current trekking management system clearly isn’t working

Since January 1st 2008 Nepal’s Trekkers’ Information Management System (TIMS) has been used to collect both independent and guided trekkers data which is uploaded in a visitors’ database which can be accessed in case of accidents and/or natural calamities. That was the idea touted by the founders Nepal Tourism Board and Trekkers Agencies Association of Nepal. It worked, to a point, at the beginning. Checkpoints were set up on all popular treks and trekkers would sign in as a way of showing they were safe.

The problems were Nepal specific, but could have been managed. The biggest was communicating the information between checkpoints. A lack of internet and electricity was often the problem. However, due to a mish  mash of mobile phone calls and boots on the ground it was possible to trace a trekker should someone have raised the alarm that they were missing – therein lies the main fault. It was often up to a family member thousands of miles away to realize that someone had not called or emailed.

Solo trekker in Nepal
A TIMS card is mandatory for all solo and group trekkers … but no longer in the Everest Region

Within 10 years it was obvious that TIMS cards were not working. Despite advances in solar electricity, internet, mobile communications and education it seems that TIMS cards were only being used to collect money. Checkpoints while still being staffed were lackluster with hand written log books. Everest trekkers noted how they were never asked to sign in on the way down, only on the way up. Trekkers went missing, had accidents, and there was silence. The best thing to do was call the Tourist Police as TIMS databases never seemed to have information to hand. Only after a lengthy delay would one know if a trekker had a TIMS, not ever to the point of where had they last checked in – this had to be done manually be rescue teams at the actual check in points.  What was the point of paying for a Trekker Information Management System when there was no management or system that could help trekkers?

Beginning of the end for TIMS

In 2017 the Solukhumbu region of Nepal (Everest Region), elected to no longer recognize TIMS cards. The first region in Nepal to do so. Their reasoning was brutally simple. Why was NTB and TAAN making all this money from tourists with none of it going to the region? Why were there no improvements to the TIMS card system? Questions raised over many years came to ahead in September 2017 when the Solukhumbu region formally stopped recognizing TIMS cards and implemented their own $20 USD local tax on all tourists entering the region.

Early on TAAN and NTB continued to deny this was the case and TIMS cards continued to be issued. However when tourists arrived in Lukla they were told they’d have to pay an additional USD$20 local tax on top of the now unrecognized TIMS card fee of $10-20. It was a public relations disaster in the making. As such, NTB and TAAN quietly dropped TIMS from just this region. Even today, there has been no official proclamation that TIMS cards are no longer required in the Solukhumbu region. Tourists still reading out of date guidebooks who show up to get TIMS cards are simply told “pay when you get there”.

Pair of Trekkers in Nepal
If TIMS is no longer recognized in the Everest Region, then what replaced it? A tax.

Other regions are also thinking of doing the same. Especially when the Solukhumbu region announced a massive $350,000 USD income direct to the municipality in 2019. It was cheered on as a victory with the money being touted for use in improving the area. Upper Mustang is another region long mentioning that the mandatory USD $500 per trekker permit fee remains in Kathmandu instead of locally. Regional municipalities throughout the Annapurna region have voiced similar complaints.

Lost in among all this vying for trekkers money, is the whole purpose of the TIMS card – to have a database of trekkers to help them if they get into difficulty.

TIMS cards are not required for Nepali Citizens

Why not? Are Nepali trekkers not worth looking after? Nepali people go trekking, surely they deserve to be part of the Trekker Information Management Systems and all the “benefits / protection” it provides. Even those who see TIMS as only a money making scheme are a bit baffled why Nepali trekkers, of which there are many, don’t have to pay.

Perhaps the answer is that the system is so bad that managing Nepali trekkers would simply overburden it. MissingTrekker.com has reported many cases of local Nepali going missing. Most of whom are not registered anywhere and are nearly impossible to trace.

The only other group that don’t have to have a TIMS card are under 10s. This makes sense as they will likely be under their parents care. That said, who keeps track of them in the event of an emergency?

Lone trekker in Nepal by a mountian
Nepali trekkers don’t need a TIMS … so who makes sure they are safe?

70% of all TIMS cards money goes to Nepal Tourism Board

Why? If a trekker pays $20 for a TIMS card then $14 of that goes to NTB while $6 goes to TAAN who are meant to implement the trekker management system, pay for checkpoints etc with that cash. What happens to the $14? Nobody knows. Promotion of Nepal is the likely answer. But is that what it’s really meant for?

This issue became so heated that TAAN itself split. There’s now a TAAN Kathmandu and a TAAN Pokhara. The latter pays for checkpoints (which are currently not open – but the fee still needs to be paid) and guide/porter insurance. While TAAN Kathmandu, who just had an election, don’t cover insurance and are no longer acknowledged in the Solukhumbu region. To put it lightly, it’s a mess.

There’s not a trekking agency in Nepal that does not think it is a bad situation (asides from the ones that are board members or managers at TAAN). With many acknowledging that TAAN Kathmandu spend more on their own meetings, elections and parties than anything else. It’s a blatantly broken system that is stuck in the quagmire of being officially recognised as being the only representative of trekking agencies and trekkers in Nepal.

Alternatives to TIMS cards

Over the years when it became clear that TIMS cards were not helping trekkers as they should be, but instead becoming revenue earners others have stepped in to come up with solutions. The most prominent of these was the local entrepreneur Mahabir Pun who has led many successful campaigns in bringing internet to rural villages across Nepal. He is also accredited with the Khopra Danda and Mohare Danda treks which focus on providing employment for local communities based on trekkers who visit the area. His idea was to have trekkers equipped with electronic tagging equipment from Thailand and Japan.  This TTS or Trekker Tagging System has already been tested and worked well.

Solution 1 ) TTS (Trekker Tagging System)

E-Tags are small electronic devices with 3 month battery lifespans. They do not work on GPS systems but solar relay stations that would be placed every 1.50-2KM  along treks.

Positives:

  • Funds available through Asian organizations promoting it
  • Easy to manage
  • Provides local employment for maintenance of solar panels
  • Emergency button that trekkers can use if they get into difficulty or get lost
  • Privacy of trekkers would be upheld

Negatives:

  • It would take a long time to get up and running for all treks
  • Members from TAAN shot the idea down as it would have to be handled by an other organization

Solution 2 ) GPS App tracking

GPS App tracking is whereby a trekker installs an App on their phone or mobile device that tracks them throughout their trek. It is being pushed by those with connections in telecommunications.

Helicopter in Nepal Mountains
Helicopter rescues have become increasingly popular and profitable in Nepal

Positives:

  • Relatively quick to implement
  • Easy to manage

Negatives:

  • It is dependent on a trekker having a compatible mobile phone (with permissions to install it)
  • It consumes a lot of battery
  • If a phone runs out of battery, the entire process fails
  • Many regions do not have a GPS signal
  • Data privacy as the app would be installed on a trekkers phone.

Solution 3 ) Mandatory Guides

Many wealthy trekking companies have been pushing for mandatory guides for all trekkers for years. The snowball effect is that local trekking companies and guides are also happy if guides were made mandatory as they believe it will bring them more income.

Positives:

  • Quick to implement
  • Easy to manage

Negatives:

Mountains in Upper Mustang
Nepal’s Mountains are huge and diverse just like in other countries, managing trekker safety need not be an overly complicated
  • Nepal loses it’s title of one of the best independent trekking countries in the world
  • Trekkers lose a lot of what makes trekking great, freedom
  • No more independent treks in Nepal
  • In 2019 the number of trekker deaths for trekkers with guides and without was an even 50%
  • If trekkers still die or go missing it will highlight Nepal’s lack of guide training – this includes allegations of corruption for expensive insurance funded rescues

Solution 4 ) Mandatory Trekking Partners above 3000 meters

This is the latest suggestion from the Solukhumbu region in 2022. It basically means that above 3000 meters all trekkers must have at least one partner with them – it doesn’t have to be a guide – e.g., another trekker.

Positives:

  • Quick to implement

Negatives:

  • Easy for determined solo trekkers to circumvent
  • Possible backlogs of trekkers in checkpoints who will then team up for only one day just to get by the checkpoint
  • Policing issues – who will police this?
  • Who bares responsibility if a trekker is alone and has their holiday cancelled?

Solution 5 ) Trekker Safety System

Full disclaimer here, this is my own suggestion. Every trekker gets a TSS card and a QR code (if they have/want mobiles) that comes with a map of their trek. It’s a simple number/QR code unique to them. Checkpoints are listed on the map they get. The onus is on the trekker to check in to those checkpoints. If they do not check in on time, then a worker from both the next and last check point leave to look for them on the main trail. If they do not find them, an alert is sent out. If the trekker checks in the next day at a different location, they are given an on the spot fine for missing the previous checkpoints. Solar panels can be used to power checkpoint, and each one will have a simple database to update for each trekker that checks in and thereby a list of people who did not check in.

Positives:

  • Relatively quick to implement based on current checkpoints
  • Creates local employment
  • Respects privacy
  • Puts the onus on the trekker to check in
  • TIMS card fees and Solukhumbu tax can be used to fund it and if need be run it

Negatives:

  • Staff training
  • Maintaining the systems

Which is the best system to help trekkers be safe in Nepal?

Anything is better than the current system at the moment. None of the systems are perfect though some do offer a solution. The biggest issue in all this is motivation and maintenance. The easiest system to implement is an outright ban on independent trekkers and making guides mandatory – however the price is extremely high.

  • Nepal no longer is thought of as a destination for independent travelers.
  • It becomes one step closer to what many of the wealthy hoteliers and trekking agents want – a system like Bhutan
  • The fall out would see Nepal plummet in popularity across the globe.
  • However, those big wealthy entities would likely still profit from the remaining wealthy tourists willing to pay high daily visitors fees for the exclusivity of visiting a tourist restricted country like Nepal.
  • There would be mass unemployment due to this – similar to the pandemic.

Based on these aspects alone, that’s a no go option.

Trekkers enjoying snow in Nepal
Trekking should be safe in Nepal – TIMS is meant to ensure that, however the reality on the ground is a better system is urgently needed

E-Tags or GPS apps are not the same. GPS apps are being strongly pushed by those wanting to profit from technology companies they have connections with. The bottom line is, battery consumption and privacy makes this system a non-runner. E-tags are a far better idea but the idea was shot down in flames back in 2014! The ones running the current systems seemly couldn’t bare losing out on the lucrative revenue stream of TIMS cards and regional taxes. However, if e-tags had been rolled out in 2014 then Nepal would by now not have a trekker safety issue to deal with.

Trekker Safety Systems or TIMS cards are in theory workable. Firstly, TIMS cards would actually need to be completely reformed and money from them actually spent on what they are meant to do. The Trekker Safety System is the best of both worlds. If TAAN and NTB don’t want to lose revenue streams then this continues on their revenue and even adds to it with penalties given to trekkers who don’t check in. Moreover, it puts the onus on trekkers to manage themselves better, creates local employment and keeps trekkers safe.

 


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18 Replies to “Nepal needs a better trekker management system than TIMS”

  1. An impressive read. I had no idea the system was so defunct. Though as I trekked the APC it was pretty obvious nobody seemed to care about check in points. So yes, a new system is needed.

  2. I’ve never had a doubt TIMS was useless. In all my years trekking in Nepal the TIMS card was one of the few things that made little sense. Most of the negativity came from our guides who made no hesitation in saying it wasn’t worth the card it is printed on.

  3. Peoples lives matter is what’s important here. If TIMS cards are not needed for Everest then why are they needed elsewhere?

  4. Thank you for writing about this. We visited Nepal many times over the years and through those years have seen the deterioration of both services like signposts and help for guides.

    This TIMS card gets shoved into one of our pockets as we know it will never be of use. So many other methods are available to make trekkers safe as you mentioned.

  5. I hope someone in Nepal pays attention because I also do not think TIMS card is any good. Why are we paying for something that does nothing?

    I know one man from France with a guide who argue him and leave. The man was stuck in Dingbouche and had to be helped by tea house owner who found another guide. Why this is allowed? Why nobody from TIMS cannot help when this happen?

    1. Sorry to learn about your friend. A proper trekking management system should have a series of phone numbers your friend could have called. Likewise the guide and trekking company could be reported for deserting their client.

  6. Other countries can manage trekkers easily even without a management system. The trekker uses their own ability to sign in at checkpoints. No need to pay for the privilege.

  7. Thank you for letting the world know about this. We are controlled in Nepal by this TAAN who don’t operate well. It puts a bad name on us as guides. We do our best but we don’t even get insurance from TAAN anymore.

    1. I believe $20 is for a Free Independent Trekker TIMS card – meaning a solo trekker with no guide. This is important as solo trekkers are basically paying double and as you wrote, nobody even asked for it. Why pay double in the first place? Presumably for additional support which doesn’t seem to exist.

  8. “No taxation without representation,” a phrase the people of Nepal understand all too well. My experience with the TIMS system is that it is at best a tax, but operationally it is worse than a tax because it purports to bestow a benefit to travelers.

    I’d prefer the system be transitioned into a tax until something that actually works can be implemented. It’s degrading to the people of Nepal who live in the trekking regions to know the money is being fleeced from the people passing through, the same people a great majority of Nepali people work very hard to accommodate. At least a tax doesn’t claim to offer the benefits of the TIMS system.

    As to Nepal’s reputation as a destination for solo travelers, I can’t imagine too many solo travelers deciding not to visit Nepal for lack of the TIMS system, or an equivalent service that works. It may be an unpopular opinion, but I’d much prefer to see the system thrown out entirely. I’m happy to pay a tax to visit the different regions. And I’d be thrilled if I knew the money paid in taxes by foreign visitors would be used to improve the infrastructure and general wellbeing of the communities I trek through. Within the trekking environment that has no official tracking system, perhaps this is a selling point for the trekking/guide companies could offer.

    1. Good points Ryan. This is basically what happened in the Solukhumbu area. TIMS was no longer recognised and the local administration simply added a $20 tax. The questions many are asking is where has all this money gone? Many locals are not seeing improvements. There has also been no improvement on checkpoints. In fact, nobody checks trekkers coming down from Base Camp. Moreover, this year the Solukhumbu administration made the recommendation that solo trekking in the region be banned. And only people with a guide or a trekking partner would be allowed. This has not yet been approved. But it is one of the many issues surrounding individual areas having complete control over the areas permits and taxes.

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