Is overtourism a problem in Nepal?

Tourists in Bhaktapur, Nepal
Group trek to Everest
Too many tourists on the way to Everest Base Camp … what’s the solution?

Can Nepal handle more tourist arrivals?

Nepal wants more tourists. The country set lofty numbers of 1 million tourists in 2018 and 2 million by 2020. Keep in mind in 2014 Nepal had about 790,000 tourists. Nepal, these days, keeps pushing for more and more tourists to arrive. Meanwhile, one must ask how is the infrastructure holding up? Does one even exist? And more importantly how is “tourist satisfaction”?

Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, long-term popular tourist destinations like Iceland, Spain and Thailand have all been in the news struggling to cope with too many tourist arrivals in specific areas and the detrimental effect of tourism on local culture – the very reason we visit in the first place.

Is Nepal paying attention? Following the devastating earthquake of 2015 did Nepal take this “opportunity” to “reset” tourism standards throughout the country as it repaired and rebuilt itself?

The official number of tourist arrivals in Nepal

2010= 602,867+18.2%
2011= 736,215+22.1%
2012= 803,092+9.1%
2013= 797,616-0.7%
2014= 790,118-0.9%
2015= 538,970-31%
2016= 753,002+40%
2017= 940,218+24.8%
2018= 1,173,072+24.8%

Data: wikipedia which vaguely corresponds to Nepal Tourism Boards tourist data

Let’s break those numbers down by country and things really get more interesting. Unfortunately, despite overall numbers for 2018 being released, individual countries have not been released for that year in this detail yet.

1 India160,832118,24975,124135,343180,974
2 China104,664104,00566,984123,805113,173
3 United States79,14653,64542,68749,83047,355
4 United Kingdom51,05846,29529,73036,75935,688
5 Sri Lanka45,36157,52144,36737,54632,736
6 Thailand39,15426,72232,33833,42240,969
7 South Korea34,30125,17118,11223,20519,714
8 Australia33,37125,50716,61924,51620,469
9 Myanmar30,85225,76921,631N/AN/A
10 Germany29,91823,81216,40518,02822,263
11 Bangladesh29,06023,44014,83121,85122,410
12 Japan27,32622,97917,61325,89226,694
13 France26,14020,86316,40524,09721,842
14 Malaysia18,28413,6699,85518,91518,842
15 Spain15,95312,2556,74113,11010,412
16 Canada15,10512,4918,39811,61012,132
17 Netherlands13,39311,4537,51512,32010,516
Total Foreigners940,218753,002538,970790,118797,616

Keep in mind that India and Nepal have an open border with no visas etc. In 2016 Nepal started offering Chinese tourists free visas on arrival. Everyone else has to pay for a visa on arrival in Nepal. 2011 was Nepal’s “year of tourism” which had a massive amount international attention drawn to it. The next year of tourism in Nepal is 2020.

It should be noted that many independent travel operators feel the numbers of 2011/12 are not at all correct in regard to tourist arrivals and was in fact much smaller.

In all cases, the one glaring problem that stands out is that the percentage increases are based on the previous years number. This is quite a “business minded” way of doing things whereby there’s always pressure to increase a “number”.

In terms of percentages surely being a percent closer or further away from “maximum tourist capacity” would be a better indicator of tourist numbers rather than continuously chasing the infinite “year before number”?

It’s bit of no brainer. If there was a 40% increase in 2016 based on the previous year and “only” 24% increase in 2017 then you can just imagine the whips coming out in a tourism meeting about why 2017 was not a 41% increase etc. Percentage increases like this are perhaps not the best way to measure or improve anything other than as a short term financial incentive, which history shows burns everything in its wake.

Tourists waiting to get on a boat in Nepal
River rafting in Nepal … just how many tourists can fit in a boat? Some tour operators will simply squeeze on the maximum number they can to make money – a few will try to give you the enjoyable experience you actually paid for

Tackling tourist numbers in Nepal

What is the maximum number of tourists Nepal can handle? This is the number the percentages should be aiming for to avoid overtourism and indeed under-tourism.

To do this, Nepal needs to bring in some nationwide standards. Environment, accommodation, food, health, safety transport, road standards, quality of service etc. It’s a long list that could continue. I put environment first for a very good reason. Nepal’s primary attraction? The environment. What’s the biggest issue with the environment in Nepal today? Pollution. Nobody likes a polluted environment. Worse yet is a polluted environment that is being sold as being pristine.

So, that’s not getting things off to a great start. So, let’s start with something easier. Accommodation.

There are three “grades” of hotel in Nepal. Star, tourist and homestay. Bizarre grading’s I know. It’s already confusing with no real written definition easily available that describes either. Unlike many international locations there’s no real “star” rating on any hotel in Nepal. There’s a 7 star hotel in Nepal but, it’s “7 star” in name only.

Look at the European standard of hotel ratings. It works pretty well. Copy it. Nobody is going to complain because it works in general. With that type of rating one knows the real capacity of hotels and accommodation. You can even divide up the demographics with budget, mid-range and high-end.

Taking into account the above paragraph, now you know how many people are booking what, at what cost, when, where and how. This equals valuable information. Standards are raised. And, voila! You know how many are actually booking hotels. It’s just a snippet of one sector that can help with analyzing the numbers.

Moreover, tourists will finally know what they are paying for rather than a hotel owner who just “feels like” their hotel is 4 star so slaps a sign up. In 2018 a committee was set up to look at this and of course have many meetings to “discus” it. Nothing much came about.

How do you work out how many tourists Nepal can handle?

Let’s start with the very basics we just tackled. Accommodation. If you look at that. And, we look at how hotels handle capacity then there are some good numbers and methods already widely proven and available.

What is the maximum capacity of a hotel? One would think if a hotel has 100 rooms the maximum capacity is 100. The smart hoteliers know their maximum capacity is actually around 80 rooms in a 100 room hotel.

With 80 fully occupied rooms the hotel is operating very efficiently, turning a profit, providing a high level of customer satisfaction and has the capacity to take a few more guests, change rooms if some guests are not happy and indeed take on walk in customers without turning anyone away.

It’s a valid starting point that can be applied to other tourism sectors.

Busy crowded street in Nepal
One never really thinks about Nepal and overcrowding … until you walk the streets

How many hotels do you have Nepal? What are their ratings/services? What are their capacities? Find this out and you can actually start making some statistical planning.

There are 1,105 official hotels in Nepal that have a total of  38,242 beds. That to me, seems like a low number. But it’s official (source:pdf).

The problem doesn’t end just with one number like this though. You still need to cater to a wide variety of tourist types.

After all if you have 1,105 hotels and 90% of them are 1-star and you have an influx of high-end tourists of 25% of your total then you’ll have some mighty annoyed wealthy tourists not happy they can’t get a hotel with a spa etc.

That’s where proper hotel grading comes in handy

Likewise, and this is important, if you have budget travelers who cannot afford rooms then the same problem exists. In fact, it’s a little worse. The budget traveler who cannot find a room due to too many tourists and not enough budget rooms suddenly has to pay out more for a roof over their head. The result? The extra money they now have to spend on accommodation is taken out of their souvenir, food or site visit budget.

Then there’s the current case for “Community Homestays” which are being run by a corporate business vs an actual community. Do see scams in Nepal for more. Again, something tourists don’t particularly like.

A case study for overtourism in Nepal

It’s not just about hotel capacity …

Far from it. The number one concern written on the list at the start? Environment. How is Nepal’s number one lakeside resort township of Pokhara doing? Take a look at the 10 years of change in Pokhara. Did someone read this? Maybe, so. In 2018 over 200 hotels in Lakeside Pokhara were deemed illegally constructed and should be demolished (source source). Again, at the end of 2018, nothing has actually been demolished or indeed physically changed.

Nepal is not alone in this. But other countries are tackling it.

Countries with overtourism problems:

  • In The Philippines the pollution from over-tourism became so bad the countries number one resort island of Boracay had to be closed (source source).  Just to add insult to injury, the six month closure revealed the problem was much worse than originally found and the closure was extended.
  • In Thailand the famous island from The Beach has been closed to let it recover from too many tourists (source).
  • In Peru they’ve started issuing timed tickets to control the number of tourists to visit Machu Picchu (source).
  • In Colombia they’ve been giving tourists (and locals) environmental training before being allowed to visit some sights (source).
  • Over 10 years ago it was suggest Mount Everest in Nepal be closed to allow a clean up to take place (source) the closure didn’t happen, now even mountaineers want tourism there to slow down (source).

Well done to some of these countries for tackling and admitting these overtourism problems. In someways it’s amazing this happened.

As an example, The Philippines is a country that’s often criticized for corruption and blatant disregard for regulations. Moreover, the uproar from tour agents, hotels and tourism officials has been huge. The pressure to reopen this world renown resort island is staggering. But, it’s not being opened. Instead, the investigation is uncovering more and more irregularities and the closure has been extended.

If you look at many of these countries on this list, a lot of them are economically challenged. In fact, Columbia just came right out of a civil conflict and started to protect its tourism infrastructure and environment from the start. So it would seem this is not the issue.

It seems the idea of ones environment being finite and fragile, is sinking in elsewhere.

Pokhara's lake Phewa
Pokhara’s lake Phewa … 300 hundred hotels dump waste into it … in 2018 200 hotels were found to be encroaching on it … the solution, build another airport nearby to bring yet more tourists in. Nepal’s focus on quantity over quality has had a terrible effect on the ever shrinking lake.

Back to Lake Phewa in Nepal. 

Over 300 hotels drain their sewage into Lake Phewa (source). And what’s happening about it? Well, there’s a new Chinese built international airport in Pokhara being opened next to bring in even more tourists to Pokhara.

Can anyone tell what’s going to happen? One look at Phewa Lake from the northern hill and you can see how it has been shrinking. Pretty soon Phewa Lake will be known as Phew Pond.

Water shortages have plagued Kathmandu for years …

Can Kathmandu cope with extra tourists when for the past 10 years it struggles to provide bathing or washing water to hotels? What about locals who struggle for water when the tourists come?

Bore holes dry up frequently in the winter. Things are better now electricity is near on 24 hours, but with more electricity come more water pumps. There was a new water supply coming online in early 2019 but … again, it’s embroiled in controversy.

As it stands, Kathmandu’s water has a decidedly yellow tint to it and has been like this years. It’s ground dirt and rusty pipes. Obviously this is not drinkable water by any stretch of the imagination and tourists along with locals should rely on bottled water.

What happens when a town runs out of water because of too many tourists? Well, ask Shimla, a cash strapped Himalayan town in North India (source) that asked tourists to stop coming in 2018 because they had no water for themselves.

Who’s counting domestic tourist numbers in Nepal?

Nobody except for … Hotels are now told to take tourists passport details for “statistical” purposes no doubt… let’s not mention the GDPR. But, who’s logging the Nepali visitors? Any hotel I’ve been to certainly has a registration book but it’s more for internal than external data processing.

Since 2015, there’s a year that keeps coming back, the number of Nepali domestic tourists hitting up popular “resort” locations has been intense to say the least. Let’s call them “weekend warriors” more than culture seekers.

Back in 2008 Lakeside in Pokhara was a ghost town on New Years Eve (Gregorian), today? Well, you’ll be paying double and having a hard time finding a place to stay. Same goes for Nepali new year. Who’s staying in the hotels? Nepali domestic tourists.

Lakeside road in Pokhara
A weekend scene in Lakeside Pokhara when the “weekend warrior” domestic tourists arrive. It’s great that Nepal now has a domestic tourism scene but … how is it being handled – this is a traffic free zone

It’s great that Nepal now has a sudden explosion of domestic tourism. But it too is adding to the infrastructure weakness Nepal suffers from.

All of a sudden Nepal has two types of tourist seeking out different things which more often than not clash.

It’s not a cultural event either during the new year period. There are no big parades or fireworks taking place. It’s bars, food, nightclubs and drinking. That’s it. That’s why the domestic tourists go. They can go to a place outside their city and drink, party etc with nothing being “reported back home”.

Okay, I get it. This happens in many places around the world. But, the flip side is that during these periods you’ve got international tourists who are being bombarded by drunks, noise and high prices which scratches off the facade of Nepal being an idyllic place.

Yes, again this happens all over the world. But, you’d think Nepal would have learned from the “others” and avoided cashing in on cheap money.

How do you tackle it? Well, I certainly wouldn’t make the “international” tourist spots of Thamel or Lakeside 24 hour (which is the plan). Perhaps separating the zones would result in everyone being happier. Including many Nepali who also want to enjoy the quieter side to their country.

Here’s Thamel as an example. A wonderful 1000 year old part of a city. Known for trekking stores, budget guest houses, souvenir stalls and lot’s of signs. Today Thamel is changing rapidly. Budget guest-houses have been run out, boutique shops are springing up, there’s rumors of 24 hour nightclubs and bars being allowed.

10 years ago the more modern Durbar Marg was the place to be for parties. Why not move the bar scene back to a place where noise and revelry is more easily managed.

It’s a glimpse at why one might be very worried about the international over-tourism scene too. In places like Barcelona locals have no qualms saying “Tourists come here to just do everything that they can’t do in their own home countries”.  Sound familiar?

If places like Thamel and Lakeside start encouraging late night parties and 24 hour bars. The international tourists might just join in a little more than expected like what’s happened elsewhere.

If this is what’s headed and encouraged in Nepal then effects will be devastating.

It’s not just the cities either. In 2018 the trekking lodges around Ghorepani (Poon Hill) were inundated with Nepali trekkers. So much so international tourists couldn’t get rooms. Why? Nepali tourists can afford to “out bid” them for a room. When it gets crowded the set price may well be 800 rupees for a room. But the Nepali domestic tourist has no issue slipping in an extra 1000-3000 rupees to secure the room. Why? Nepali domestic tourists have much more disposable income than the average international tourist who’s just paid for flights, visas, permits, guides and two-tier pricing. So Nepal has a huge new domestic tourist problem it’s not ready for in the least.

Like to know the other trekking towns overrun by domestic party goers? Jomson, Gorepani, Australian Camp, Gandruk and Tatopani are all swamped during Nepali festivals. One of the reasons I’ve written in alternatives in my Trekking in Nepal guidebook.

Nepal keeps pushing for more Chinese tourists

Let’s not beat around the bush here. Chinese tourists have a bad reputation around the world. So be it. The USA had one too. More to do with ego than anything else. On the ground when you talk to shop keepers and hoteliers who aren’t into PR the answer is that the Chinese are just rude and disrespectful. Columbia’s idea of “tourist training” comes to mind before setting off to an idyllic spot.

Chinese tour buses now chug into Pokhara’s lakeside, Bhaktapur and Patan. The Chinese tour leaders with little colored batons arrived in 2016. Never before had I seen a full on Chinese tour group in Nepal. It was rather unsettling.

Tour buses arriving into Nepal
Big tours buses arriving into Nepal … as a tourist there’s nothing worse than walking along a street enjoying a place when one of these monsters drives up and disturbs the peace.

Massive groups crowded around sacred temples. Selfie sticks were like swords of yesteryear as people battled to make a V sign with their fingers before shuffling off to the next temple. Don’t bother with your tripod when these tours are around, you’ll literally be bowled over.

Okay. So, let’s look at the numbers again. In 2014 there were 123,800 Chinese tourists. In 2017 104,664 a couple hundred more than the year before. All this at the cost of free visas?! In 2018 Nepal Tourism Board even launched a Chinese version of their website …. This before a Nepali text version.

Asking people why they focus on Chinese tourists brings up rather dull answers. The Chinese have more money. No more western tourists are coming.

Wait, what? No more western tourists? Have a look at the official tourist numbers list again. USA tourists in 2014 49,830, 2016 53,645 and 2017 79,146. That’s just the USA. If you add up all “western” countries you get over 248,000 people coming to Nepal in 2017 from much further away who are also paying visa fees. More than double the number of Chinese by far.

Moreover, those numbers while down did not dip as much during 2015, unlike the Chinese ones which tanked …

What about regional Asia excluding China and India? in 2017 it’s nearly 168,000.  Again, a lot more than China. But, Nepal keeps focusing on China. Why? All this, despite numbers from collective regions dominating the arrivals a lot more. The answer has nothing to do with tourism. One quick walk around Jyatha in Thamel on a Saturday morning and you’ll see Chinese babies being pushed along by grandparents and every other type of non-tourist Chinese enjoying the day off. The answer is of course economics with a dash of looking away to the obvious.

Overcrowded bottlenecks in Nepal?

Who’s been to Chitwan over the past few years and been stuck on a bus for 10 hours (5 hour journey). The road is in bad condition with a constant yearly mantra of “it’s being fixed”  and “it’s fixed now”. Add more bus loads of tourists to this road?

Lukla airport. In 2018 Lukla (start of Everest Trek) experienced something it constantly suffers from. Delays. Too many tourists, not enough planes and unpredictable weather. In September and October the number of flight delays be days not hours was staggering. Everything was being blamed from bad weather to airport congestion. However, helicopters at inflated prices were able to fly with no issue.

The result? Well, in May 2018 it resulted in a well connected Indian tourist asking help from the Indian government to rescue them (source). While “weather” was to be blamed. The real crux is the highly profitable Nepal quick fix helicopter “scam” going on. $250 per person going up, but on this occasion where demand was needed the price shot up to $600. Not good.

This incredible push for more quick in and out tourists to trek results in acclimatization problems and transport issues. Lukla is a high altitude airport. The weather is unpredictable. These two things grate against the high turnover of profit minded tour agencies. Get em in, get em out … there’s a delay, they’ve an international flight they can’t miss? Charge them more to get out.

Tourists who wait it out are then subjected to days of sitting in an airport. Then days of overcrowding on the trails when the planes finally get their chance to take off and there’s a rush at Lukla.

Quite frankly if Kathmandu and Lukla airports cannot handle 1 million tourists what hope is there for 2 million?

Indra Jatra crowds in Kathmandu
Indra Jatra in Kathmandu … this is crowded, but it’s different. It’s a massive festival known for its crowds – you go there for the spectacle – but if this was a typical tourist day out … you’d run away

Kathmandu’s pollution. The capital city in the idyllic green valley is ranked 5th in the world’s most polluted cities (source). How did this even happen? It’s a valley surrounded by mountains which doesn’t help. But, the real issue is vehicle pollution and brick smelters. Incentives to buy cars increases constantly. The traffic jams are monumental. The lack of education about pollution is incredible. Despite vast potential Kathmandu has already become a bottleneck year round and is becoming an eyesore to many.

Pokhara’s Lakeside. It’s already been covered here about the lakes pollution. The tour buses rolling in and out. Pokhara is more spread-out than Kathmandu so you don’t feel the effects that much. The bottlenecks come in the form of the area not being able to manage it’s once pristine environment. New hotels appear every 3 months. The lake gets greener and the mountains get hazier every year.

When a country with a unique identity in the world ignores overtourism it soon loses its identity.

It becomes “just another country” filled with souvenir stalls, tour agents and annoyed locals forced out of homes due to rising rents.

Over-tourism, noise, disturbance and crime in Nepal

Over the past 2 years a lot of hotels are now putting bars on windows. There’s a reason for that. It might not be written down anywhere but just ask the hotelier why in such a safe place are windows being barred up?

Nepal’s saving grace for many years has been that it’s extremely low on crime. However, with the push for more tourists things are obviously changing.

Where there’s an abundance of tourists gathered with their guard down there will be people seeking opportunities.

Bag snatches, lost passports, mobile theft. It’s surprising to hear this in many hotels these days. Yet, very little make the news. It’s still in the embarrassing stage of things whereby nobody likes to admit there is a problem. This despite the poor tourist standing with no bag, wallet or passport wondering what just happened.

Many tourists on holidays like to do what they can’t do at home. Thamel and Lakeside are starting to show signs of this with late night reveling and alcohol consumption. The very things that locals protested against in Barcelona when they told tourist go home.

Local markets in Kathmandu? Locals shoo away tour groups and no longer want photos taken. Why? Tours stop to take photos of them like at a zoo while locals can’t even buy food because of the groups taking up so much space.

Overtourism is not just a problem in Nepal

Is this just a “bash” on tourism in Nepal? No. There in recent years tourism pollution has been a problem in many other countries.

  • Remember the movie “the beach” with Leonardo DiCaprio? Well, Maya Bay, where it was filmed closed due to tourism damage source: Guardian.
  • The Gili Islands in Indonesia are beset by rubbish dumps, while Bali has ground to a halt due to traffic (source: Guardian).
  • Boracay, was the Philippines number one tourist destination, in 2018 it was closed for 6 months due to tourism pollution damage (source: ABS-CBN).
  • In the USA National Parks are considering restricting entry because too many people are visiting them (source: Yale).
  • Anti-tourist protests emerge across Europe (source: Reuters)
  • Japan’s transport and peace has been disrupted in its bid to increase tourist numbers (source: Japan Times)

Of the above, Japan seems to be what Nepal is trying to mirror. If Japan can’t get it right, what hope for Nepal?

The answer is surely not to more than double the current number of tourists.

Overtourism solutions in Nepal

They are all bad ideas aside from one. Let’s briefly look at the bad ideas that keep popping up.

Responsible tourism

Never going to happen. It’s a buzz phrase that the industry has been saying for the past few years. Tourists coming for 14 days come in many shapes and sizes. In the past trekkers were generally well behaved and environmentally conscious. Today, with shorter stays, helicopter travel etc many simply come to party or have little regard for Nepal’s cultural heritage. Stepping on the head of Buddha for a V photo has never been so popular in Nepal.

If you really want responsible tourists, let them pass an exam for that visa first. But, that’s never going to happen is it.

Cheap flights

Stopping cheap flights is never going to happen either. Oil prices are low and yet the airlines still claim they don’t make enough cash compared to the high prices a few years ago. It’s a for profit industry that wants to fill those seats up at all costs. And, people will keep paying.

Travel like a local

No. Tourists are not locals. It’s a nice tourism buzz phrase and no more. In Nepal, the idea has been completely flipped on its head. Tourists stay with locals and make believe they are doing the country good by distributing wealth and environmental impact. Travel like a local, staying in homestays all sounds so nice.

Crowd at Poon Hill
When your mountain view has been blocked by tour groups and signs it may be time to take a different trek

The reality is most of these places are being run by tour companies. And, they charge more for the privilege. Take a look at Panauti in Kathmandu. Lovely place. Great hotel there too. Community homestays? Yep. They’ve even got a giant banner sign, website and a branded logo … They cost more than the hotel and you would not believe what the locals have to go through to get a guest to stay via the “silent” tour company. Sigh, next catchphrase please. AirB … never mind.

Make Nepal more Expensive

What? India and Thailand are both cheaper than Nepal to travel. The latter has far better standards too. This fallacy that Nepal is a great budget destination needs to stop. Cheaper than New York? Sure. Can you still squeeze out a USD $2 meal? Absolutely but make sure you eat in a good budget restaurant in Kathmandu to do so. But did you add up all those extras yet? Visas, trekking permits, tourist taxes, service charges, VAT … the list goes on.

The well-connected travel agencies and tour companies would love to boost prices up as it’s easier to profit from a few wealthy controlled package tourists than an independent traveler who avoids these expensive tours and does it alone. Sadly, these few operators and the ones shouting the loudest.

Come back here in 2022 and you’ll probably find Nepal has introduced some form of “Tourist Tax” to cope with “overtourism” and preserve the environment.  The irony is not lost.

Better marketing and education

See responsible travel. The people marketing Nepal are the very ones trying to bring more tourists in. It’s a numbers game and they will not stop. As for education? There are plenty of Master degree holding tourism entrepreneurs who want more tourists too.

Can tourists be better educated about Nepal? Sure, absolutely. But do you really see a Nepali tour similar to Columbia where tourists are given a training session first? No. When you have a rampaging domestic tourist threatening to close a hotel down for scolding them about making too much drunken noise during the night, there’s an issue. Or when a hotel is terrified of a bad TripAdivisor review because they kicked an international tourist out.

Protecting overcrowded areas

These are the very areas that tour companies want more tourists to visit so they can profit from them. How about protecting old buildings from tourists? Well, in Kathmandu Durbar Square fences were finally put up them and the result? Nobody obeys and the fencing damaged the area. Aside from that? Indra Jatra anyone?

Nepal has a living heritage. People walk, talk, sleep and eat on heritage. Blocking it off won’t help. But, there is another solution that can help.

Tackling overtourism with technology

Amsterdam and a town in Italy use an app to tell tourists what sites are overcrowded (source). It seems to work well for independent tourists. It could also work in Nepal.

The big naysayers to brush it off will be the tour companies. They certainly don’t want their clients looking at an app that says “Durbar Square overcrowded – avoid“. But, for the independent tourist it could be a holiday saver.

If Durbar Square is overcrowded between 10am and 2pm then let’s go to Swayanbhunath. Or let’s take a heritage walk on the way to Kathmandu Durbar Square to avoid the crowd.

Traffic in Kathmandu
This is the reality of traffic in Nepal … squeezing more people in is surely not the sane answer

It’s one of the reasons I created the new and original Kathmandu Valley heritage walks guidebook. There’s a lot more to do in than just the “big attractions”. With a book like this you can discover places nobody else knows about. With an app that shows you what’s crowded or not? You could double the fun.

The problem with such an app in Nepal? Logistics and maintenance. Traffic can’t even be monitored effectively on the roads of Kathmandu let alone tourist sites. It wouldn’t be hard though. Every time a tourist enters a site and buys a ticket it’s logged, the numbers added to an online database. Likewise when the tourist leaves, they are logged. No personal information is needed. Just a number to know how many are there. The app picks it up and let’s everyone else know.

It could even work with Lukla. What’s the capacity of Lukla today? What’s the weather? Potential for delay? Tourists  are independently informed and ready. Instead, such information is only shared among guides and airlines. The very people dictating the costs.

Taking some responsibility for tourism in Nepal

Did you know that back in 2007 I didn’t even want to let anyone know about this gem called Nepal? I didn’t want the crowds to come crashing in and spoiling places I had found here. A pipe dream that many people will recognize from their own travels.

The reality is that if you don’t say it, then someone else will. Hopefully when you do say it first, then you are telling the right people who will appreciate it more and others will protect it the right way. If not, then the big for profit tour companies will eventually come along and say anything and everything just to sell a tour.

Sadhu not wanting to be photographed
There is no problem – the worst thing you can do is pretend the problem is not there …

Back in 2014 I saw this problem escalating. The same old big popular sites were being promoted. Crowds of tourists kept being told where to go and when. It was getting uncomfortable.

After the 2015 earthquake, few tour operators bothered to redo their promotional material. So tourists arrived expecting to see these great temples, trekking trails and pristine vistas. Yes, so many are untouched, but some of those temples used in promotional material are gone while some trekking trails are now over charging and those pristine vistas are hazy.

There are so many other things to see and do in Nepal. But tour operators don’t seem to like updating their material.

I prefer a much more honest approach. Why?

Being honest means a tourist known what to expect. Happy tourists = good feedback = free advertising. It’s a win, win for all.

One of the reasons my guidebooks to Nepal have such a positive feedback from travelers is that I’m upfront and honest about how things are.

Example: despite the giant tour posters showing the pristine Durbar Square, Patan in 2019 is covered in scaffolding. I let people know this so they won’t be disappointed. I also let them know they can watch real Nepali artisans, stone masons and carpenters rebuild these temples traditionally. Not interested in this? No problem, give Patan a skip and visit Thimi on the way to Bhaktapur instead. There’s no scaffolding and the place is filled with old temples for an hour or so.

Likewise, Langtang for trekking? No thanks. Prices have doubled and it’s still not safe in my opinion since the earthquake. Take a Mardi Himal Trek or an Annapurna Base Camp trek instead.

I’m constantly working on finding and adding more places. During the book launch last year we used the theme “Discover the Undiscovered”. Likewise, you can also “rediscover” places. Tour groups skip over so many incredible sights. Nepal is like a treasure trove. I wanted to create books that will show you maps to these treasures.

I wanted to find places that rivaled the big popular sites with ease. I did this and also updated the big popular sites. Sooner or later everyone else will discover these places. However, it will be a while before the big tour companies can cash in them. In the meantime, these incredible places are there waiting for you to discover them before anyone else catches on. Discover these places and more in my guidebook to Nepal.

Can overtourism be fixed in Nepal?

Like any problem, you’ve got to admit the problem exists first before being able to fix it.

Nepal has yet to admit there is problem.

There is a lot of money involved in the tourism industry. Such industries are hardly going to let it all go. This is the main problem.

During the mass reconstruction over the past few years it would have been a great opportunity to address and put in place solutions for the future influx of tourists to Nepal. It did not happen.

The likely scenario will come in what was addressed above. Nepal will likely take the easy route out and simply raises prices for everything like they did in the middle of the peak season in 2018. The few big well connected companies will profit and those that can afford to visit the country will certainly enjoy themselves as fewer people arrive. Think Bhutan.

Empty street in Bhaktapur
This street is located in one of the most popular tourist cities in Nepal … right next to it is another street with hoards of tourists – the answer to finding places like this and avoiding crowds is to avoid the highly promoted overtouristed locations tour operators keep taking people too – a combination of good guidebook to Nepal and technology will be the solution to enjoying your holiday!

The other scenario is the one mentioned earlier. Technology will bypass these big companies and enable tourists to look after themselves. One look at an app to see busy hotel areas will tell you to stay elsewhere. Overbooked restaurants will pop up and you know to go down the road instead. Busy attractions will tell you their capacity based on tourist feedback and you’ll know to go somewhere else that morning.

Is the latter a perfect solution? No. But it’s got potential to help tourists enjoy Nepal no matter how many tourists are visiting it which seems to be the ongoing mantra.

Nepal is in a unique position. It is already showing signs of overtourism. However, it’s still a country with pristine mountains filled with great peaceful treks so long as you know which ones to take and when. You can step back in time with heritage walks around ancient mystical temples, so long as you again know when and what to visit. Or you can venture into wild jungles still filled with exotic wildlife. Alone, as a couple or in a group. It’s all still possible without the big tour groups.

For now, there are bottlenecks forming but it’s far from overwhelming.

When Nepal starts to hit (the real figures of) 1.2 – 1.5 million annual visitors then the onus will likely be on the tourist to be more aware that they may not be so alone anymore.

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26 Replies to “Is overtourism a problem in Nepal?”

  1. Excellent article. It’s true that technology might be able to help tourists discover what’s crowded or not. But at the end of the day the people promoting a place to the brink of destruction need to be held accountable.

    1. Indeed other nations have learned that the over-promoting of a destination leads to its tourism-specific destruction and eventually a reversal in tourist trends and often a closure of certain points of interest to physically repair them.

  2. I never thought Nepal would have suffered from too many tourists. But after reading this and learning about so many other countries with this problem I understand it now.

    By the way, add London to your list. Sometimes there are more tourists here than British!

    1. Yes, it’s sad that proper infrastructure and greed is leading Nepal down this path despite other nations taking preventative measures. Moreover the destinations mentioned that suffered the consequences.

  3. Nepal needs to promote off season more. Many things to do in Nepal during monsoon. East treks very accessible.

    1. But they do promote “off-season tourism in Nepal” the problem is that it’s been disastrous. There are indeed places to visit during the off-season however they are crippled by bad roads, streets, drainage and safety issues.

  4. Impressive succession of events in this post. Well done. I’ve only ever heard of people promoting a country.

    You’ve presented an excellent look at the reality of non-stop promotion by people who only want numbers both physically and financially.

    Today’s world of “overtourism” is a frank reality of our lack of ability to diverse and educate. I hope Nepal will wake up to this as well.

    1. Thank you Mark. The reality of Nepal being a great destination is very true, however I don’t believe in hiding the blunt realities either. Promote, promote, promote and one day the welcome marker is warn out. Something that takes even longer to reverse or indeed repair.

  5. This is the most important problem I believe, it is hard to do good as a tourist. As you are saying, locations present themselves as if they are run by locals and help the locals. I as a tourist would look into such places and be sure that they are great for the locals, so I would have an easier time feeling that I did not do as bad for the country as regular turists do. But sometimes you just get tricked, and it is a tourist trap. Really hard, but if we try, we can make a difference, at least, I believe.

    1. Tourists do good when they choose to spend their hard earned money to visit the country. The problem is at the other end when people want more and more of that money to come in at any cost to the environment, value for money or indeed the culture.

  6. Thank you for writing this. Nepal only promotes the same destination year after year. They say go west or east but the roads are so bad you can barely move. It’s true about our roads. There are now so many we can’t even manage ourselves let alone for tourist.

    1. Swayambhu, Bouddha, The Durbar Squares and trekking. These are the heavily promoted areas on Nepal. Other than that, out of touch articles on remoter areas which are far from ready compared to the promotional material being handed around.

  7. I’d like to see Nepal push forward with an eco-friendly solution instead of jamming more and more people in.

  8. Do you think restricting the number of tourist visas would work as an option?

    1. I think come 2021/2022 the increase in visa costs would be a more likely prospect. Likewise an increase in permits etc – thusly Nepal will jump on a quasi-Bhutuan approach with only certain tour operators being able to draw a profit in the name of protecting the country from … over-tourism.

  9. Poon Hill is too many tourist. We went and it was covered with Indian and Chinese. Many westerner just shook their head and walked to quiet area. I suggest another place nearby.

    1. Go after 9.30am to Poon Hill. Sunrise is only so so and spoiled by as you say, too many tourists. If you wake up that morning you’ll see sunrise from Ghorepani. There’s no rush to see the mountains if the weather is good!

  10. I would have thought the earthquake was a great opportunity to redo things the right way. Surprised to see Nepal has not learned. Amazing to see other countries take visible action like Thailand and the Philippines. Well done to them!

  11. This is a very interesting post and I appreciate what you wrote. More needs to be done to diversify tourist hotspots around the world. Too often it’s greedy well connected tour operators who are flooding once wonderful areas into congested messes.

    1. Yes, tour operators have a lot of responsibility when it comes to repeatedly promoting the same big in-country destinations. They leave new areas to the by-lines rather than investing in them and in turn reinvesting to protect them.

  12. I like the way you write with honesty about this article Dave. Its an eye opener for tourist and government alike. Lets all help take care of mother earth.

  13. I’m a Chinese-Canadian currently living in Pokhara. This is an interesting article but I want to call you out on your demeaning attitude towards Chinese tourists. I think it’s completely unnecessary.

    Nepal’s government wants to focus on Chinese tourists and you seem to want to imply this is a “problem” because as you say … “Massive groups crowded around sacred temples. Selfie sticks were like swords of yesteryear as people battled to make a V sign with their fingers before shuffling off to the next temple.” This sentence, taken out of context, can apply to any tourist group from any country. Tourists in groups pose issues, no matter their nationality.

    Focusing on Chinese tourists does make some sense, as the distance is closer, making travel more accessible than other tourists from other countries that have to pay $1500+ USD for plane tickets. Furthermore, in case you forgot, China is home to 1/6th of the world’s population, and is currently experiencing some of the highest growth rates in the world. Given its proximity, growing wealth and newly minted middle-class seeking the same pleasure and enlightenment from travel as you and I, I don’t understand the “concern” you have with Chinese tourists apart from the thinly veiled stereotypes that you express here.

    1. Great to hear you are living in Pokhara.

      Calling out is a strong phrase.

      The article is factual and correct and about over-tourism. Not everybody will enjoy reading some of the truths that are occurring in Nepal or indeed other countries. Indeed you may be surprised to learn of the amount of Chinese based propaganda spam many travel sites get whenever anything subjectively “negative” about China is mentioned.

      In reference to some of your words. The infamous “V” sign has its origins and popularity in Asia in relation to photographs. So no, it does not apply to any tourist group from any country. There is an element of respect to another countries culture that has long been upheld by the vast majority of tourists throughout the world. Are there exceptions, of course. Indeed there are a few Chinese who are respectful to Nepali culture however there is a very obvious and blatant differential ratio leaning towards those who do not respect Nepali culture or heritage.

      Given the vast amount of international references in this article you have chosen only the Chinese aspect of it rather than the focus of the article which is again over-tourism. And I can tell you now, one will not be drawn into a Chinese propaganda comment for comment affair which is off topic.

      There are no thinly veiled stereotypes here just facts regarding a wide range of over-tourism topics. You can make of them what you will and come to your own conclusions be they correct or in this case incorrect based on your statements.

      Again this article is about over-tourism in Nepal not about the influx Chinese arriving on tourist visas for well known and blatant reasons which has nothing to do with tourism.

      Indeed there are many reasons for the large increase in Chinese nationals arriving in Nepal. Including non-reciprocal free visas and extensions. If you were to talk to any long-term non-Nepali or Chinese living in Nepal there are some startling home-truths that are well known within communities. Including the fact that many Chinese are not tourists per se. If you are in Pokhara do try to talk with local Nepali business (especially cottage industries) who have been forced out of their rented buildings due to Chinese “businesses” forcefully paying three times the rental price. Then ask the same in Kathmandu and you will see much more than that. Again, this is off-topic but hopefully you can see why it is indeed off-topic for this article.

      Such dynamics are worthy of a different article altogether. A much more solemn one. One that has very little to do with tourism other than taking advantage of such visas and business enterprises in Nepal.

      It’s also worth noting that a lot of Chinese tourist money gets spent on Chinese businesses in Nepal and not through cash. But apps such as Alipay. Therefore a lot of money from Chinese tourists doesn’t end up in Nepal but goes straight back into China. I’m quite sure this is not the ideal type of tourist that Nepal should be benefiting from. In fact, it’s very worrying.

      Again, without getting off-topic, this article is about over-tourism. As you can read very clearly there were many many topics in relation to over-tourism issues that were raised and not just Chinese issues which you chose to comment about. Yes there is indeed a problem with mass Chinese tourism that goes far beyond tourism throughout the world. However, that is a different topic. I hope you now understand that.

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