Nepal and China still share Mount Everest, for now
There’s an invisible border at the top of Everest between Tibet (China) and Nepal. Back in the 1950s when the British were going full on to be the first to the top there was real concern the Chinese would have issues with the “Illegal border crossing”. Of course none of that happened. Hillary (New Zealand) and Tenzing (Nepal) stood at the top of the world’s highest peak and that was that.
During this early period Nepal had just opened its doors to the outside world again while China was closing off Tibet’s. Nepal got off to a head start in terms of mountaineering and trekking tourism.
Since then Nepal has largely made both climbing Everest and trekking to Everest Base Camp the backbone of its tourism industry. All that, is about to change.
How & why Nepal’s tourism infrastructure is based around Everest
It’s the world’s tallest mountain. It has an allure. People either want to see it, climb it or photograph it. Since Lukla airport (Tenzing-Hillary Airport) opened in 1964 the time required to reach Everest halved. What was once a remote mountain area suddenly became accessible to all. Nepal had a tourism gold mine on its hands.
Despite Royal and Political upheaval the trekking industry boomed. In 12-14 days you could go from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp and Everest. The legendary stories, the magnificent photographs were all there. Nepal really didn’t need to do much else to lure in tourists.
The other tourism options in Nepal seemed to take a back seat for many years with a strange notion of Everest popping in everywhere:
- Despite the fact that there are eight of the worlds tallest mountains in Nepal. All everyone focuses on is the tallest one.
- The entire middle belt of Nepal is filled with mystical temples, monuments, shrines and valleys. Nothing happened aside from rising pollutions levels. Where’s the trekking permit office behind all the haze?
- The southern area has vast jungles filled with tigers, rhinos and elephants that put most African safaris to shame. Can you see Everest from there?
It’s not hard to understand that when all everyone thinks about is “Everest” why would you bother with the rest?
Nepal’s second saving grace in terms of trekking, the Annapurna Circuit, largely came about from people trying to find an alternative to Everest. So, what happened? A road was built alongside it.
The Red Dragon Awakens
Tibet has been a thorny issue for China since the 50s. The state is constantly in and out of closed off status. In March 2008 there was a second uprising. They shut everything down again. Now, ten years later the doors are open again.
Tibet’s infrastructure has been radically improved. Long, smooth roads. Bright shiny lights. Health care and a tourism industry ready to boom. China is a patient, well planned out country. While having the power to crack down physically on Tibet as they have done in the past, they also tempt it with the idea of being a better more prosperous land.
Instead of uprising, promote Tibet as a magnificent place to travel. I’ve been there, it’s pretty incredible in terms of views and scenery. It’s only a matter of waiting for the right time for all this to explode into tourism. Indeed, as we speak a luxury resort is being built near the north Everest Base Camp. It’s due to be finished in 2019.
China’s New Everest Resort
For over a decade the little known secret in the world is that physically it’s very easy to reach the Tibetan Everest Base Camp. You can take a 4×4 and just walk a few hours to see it. Then come back. All nice and comfortable.
The problem has always been access to Tibet, Visas and of course cost. None of which are easy. You could book your trip to the Chinese/Tibetan Everest Base camp for next November, only to find out the Chinese have closed down access to Tibet again. Trip canceled. Not a good way to do business. For now.
But, plush hotels, resorts and even a mountaineering museum in Tingri are all being built (source) just 40 miles from Everest. Paved roads, a helipad, hospital, electric cars, spas, restaurants and a wealth of day tours to keep tourists happen for the duration of their stay (source). Want to see Everest? Hop on an pollution free buggy and you’ll be there 10 minutes. Literally. And again, this is all opening in 2019.
There’s no doubting China is putting everything in place to make a their version of Everest Base Camp and tourism in Tibet the best experience possible. They are not interested in trekkers (yet), it’s all about package tours. Fly in, take a jeep, see nice things, stay at an Everest resort for a night. Walk outside to it (trek) or take jeep there. Go back. Go home.
It’s not idyllic, but it’s efficient and that’s what many tourists want these days.
China is already claiming that 10,000 people per year visit their side of Everest vs 35,000 on the Nepali side. The numbers are a lot closer than people think.
Will China’s New Everest Resort take tourists away from Nepal?
There are two ways to look at this. In the short term, no. Nepal dominates the tourism sector with the name “Everest”. However, China has a vast marketing budget which could easily swipe Nepal’s efforts away.
Nepal still has the trekking option. This is Nepal’s saving grace. The Tibetan Everest is not a trekkers paradise. It’s a short walk. Then again, there are many people who don’t want to get all sweaty and dirty to see Everest. Moreover the helicopter scam in Nepal along with an increasingly small number of well connected tour agencies pushing for helicopter tours is taking the “trek” aspect out of Everest. This is where China will again dominate Nepal.
China has a horrible visa requirement. Book your hotel in advance with full itineraries, apply ahead, pay ahead but only from your home country and maybe you’ll get a visa. This without doubt, puts people off visiting China or Tibet. In Nepal? Hop on a plane, arrive, pay, go visit. If China changes their tourist visa system to on arrival visas with no requirements, then it’s a whole new game.
China also “gets” hospitality. So long as you don’t mind being on a package tour the Chinese will treat you well with clean accommodation, nice food and everything works well. Heck, you’ll probably have 100MB internet at Everest. In Nepal … well, let’s just say it’s more rough and ready. There’s internet in theory at Everest Base Camp but it’s usually only working when it feels like it.
It starts with a hidden whisper: In 2017-2018 China once again allows tourists to travel Nepal to Tibet Overland. Some of the packages include Everest Base Camp stops. China, is indeed testing the water and already sweeping some of Nepal’s tourists up along the way.
Maybe some people already prefer the Chinese Everest to Nepal’s Everest?
Mountaineers have constantly voiced their concern about Everest from the Nepal side (source). Many talk of over crowding. Lack of regulations and safety concerns. Unexperienced climbers from all over the world are now finding it cheaper to climb Everest so the mountaineers feel the pressure of their exclusive mountain experience being subjected to a tour group mentality.
The result? People who want a better experience move to where they can find it.
In China things are run a little bit more strictly. One needs to have scaled a 8,000m peak before even applying to climb Everest from their side. There are less crowds. The temptation is there. The only hang up is the whole Tibet closed door and visa/permit issuing hurdles.
Nepal’s economy and China
There’s one thing we left out aside from tourism. Since just before the 2015 earthquake Nepal has been flirting with doing business with China. In 2016 free visas were offered to all Chinese tourists. Indeed, if you walk down Thamel today you’ll see Chinese signs everywhere.
Nepal, has opened the flood gates to China. New Chinese Internet is already here. Chinese roads are being built linking Nepal to China. Kathmandu Durbar Square has Chinese scaffolding with signs printed in large Chinese writing. There’s talk of a railway system linking China to Nepal and possibly India. The one belt, one road initiative offers similar proposals. The lure of Chinese wealth is said to be too much for Nepal to resist no matter the cost.
While Nepal enjoys the fruits of this new relationship, are its own fruit trees are being cut down for firewood
What’s India, Nepal’s traditional and culturally similar trading partner doing? Well, it sits in an awkward position. A long term ally that is constantly rebuffed no matter what it does. Socially in Nepal, it’s quite normal to give India a verbal tongue lashing whenever you feel like it. Meanwhile, that doesn’t happen with China. Indeed the country sitting on Nepal’s northern border does not publicly reprimand Nepal at all. It’s always seen as being “a friend”. Unlike India, who speaks it’s mind. The result is that almost everything Chinese is seen as profitable and good for Nepal. While India is seen as a constant nagging relative.
What seems to be skipping over Nepal is that China’s true intension are to link the huge market of India to its infrastructure at any cost. India doesn’t want this at the moment. Meanwhile China is building trade roads from the Tibetan border all the way through to India. In the middle of this is Nepal with a much smaller population who seem completely unaware that it’s about to be turned into one giant road system to help it’s northern neighbor to flood the market with its goods which will then in one way or another reach the open border with India.
On paper, China wins Everest hands down
There’s little doubting that when you do the math virtually everything works in China’s favor. They don’t need to take Everest from Nepal because they already own its northern side. What they are doing with this part of Everest will indeed take a certain demographic of tourist away from Nepal.
Imagine if China opens up trekking regions in Tibet … well, that will really stick it to Nepal. They are probably already developing this, just not talking about it, yet. The world is a big place though and with over tourism being a popular worry perhaps this would be a good thing.
What can Nepal do?
Can Nepal counter China? Sadly they might try going head on. A new Everest airport or worse yet the idea of building a road to Everest Base Camp on the Nepal side have been proposed. The road on the Annapurna Circuit has turned many off Nepal’s second iconic trekking route. But, there are plenty of certain tourists who love the idea of no exercise and the ease of hopping into a jeep instead. These are the same type of tourist with cash to spend on package tours owned by large companies. So, is it any wonder such initiatives are supported.
Could the same thing happen with Everest? Yes. The hardcore trekkers will go elsewhere while the selfie lovin’ package tourists will take the jeeps to base camp just as they are at the moment with helicopters. History, does repeat itself in many guises.
As much as Nepal likes to tout that it has plenty of mountains to show people, the infrastructure just isn’t there nor is any planning. The Annapurna Circuit Killer road is proof of that alone. Moreover the lure of the “Annapurna’s” is not the same as the lure of “Everest”. Not even close.
Luxury tourism and Nepal do not go hand in hand. You have to spend larger amounts of money in Nepal to get the same hospitality standards for less in other countries. Commodities are more expensive in Nepal, so it really has a hard time offering something with high-end standards at reasonable prices. Meanwhile in China, everything works well and is relatively cheaper too.
The world’s premier eco-destination?
Nepal hasn’t quite killed off its environment yet. A reversal here could well be its ticket out of all this. Making Nepal a socially conscious and environmentally friendly tourist destination could well be its saving grace.
I’m not talking your typical “eco” friendly, responsible tourism, tree-hugging tour here. Forget the buzz words. I’m talking a full on eco-environmentally friendly country. Think, Switzerland or Iceland but on a budget.
Focusing on clean forests, pristine trails, clean cities, recyclable environments. Nepal could well become the world’s number one eco destination. Mountains to the north, heritage in the middle and jungles to the south. Everything is in place. Make it accessible to budget, mid-range and high-end tourists to really stand out.
As idyllic as all that sounds there’s a huge problem. There were once clean electric trolley buses in Kathmandu? They are gone. Replaced by smoke billowing cars, mini-buses and motorcycle. A new electric bus was introduced to Kathmandu in 2018 but has thus far failed to impress anyone. There was once a pristine trekking route in the Annapurna region, now there’s a road there. Nepal, hasn’t quite caught on to having a clean environment yet.
Nepal needs to diversify
Nepal had Everest all to itself for decades. Now, the mountain it shares with China needs to be just that … shared. Going head to head with China on its own terms is a bad idea. To beat China Nepal just needs to look at its own backyard.
Friendly people, diverse open cultures, mystical heritage, vast jungles and wildlife. Nepal literally has everything but the sea to offer.
However, such incredible sights can’t be teated the same as Everest. Unlike the “worlds tallest mountain”, they won’t sell themselves. Nepal will actually have to work hard to create, sustain, maintain and improve these attractions.
Despite all this, Nepal is still pushing for 2 million tourists by 2020. Meanwhile, China has kept things low in terms of numbers while constantly improving infrastructure, health services and their tourism industry.
Is China doing what it does best and biding it’s time to pounce on these tourists after 2020?
Can Nepal diversify from being the land of just Everest?
To be honest, it no longer seems to have a choice in the matter.
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