TACOMA, Washington — Nepal is perhaps best known for Mount Everest located on the Nepali Himalayan. This mountain range includes eight of the 10 highest mountain peaks in the world. Tourists flock every year to Nepal’s rich landscape. They travel not only for mountaineering but wilderness tourism, bird watching, trekking, rafting, kayaking, canyoning, jungle safari, rock climbing and many other activities. Every year, tourism brings in $700 million to the economy. Because of this, more than one million Nepali workers depend on the tourism industry. Disasters that affect the tourism industry subsequently impinge other areas of development in Nepal.
The Borgen Project spoke with David Camacho, an anthropologist completing his Master’s Degree and focusing his life’s work in Nepal. He highlights that his anthropology focuses on community sustainability and preserving Nepali culture while helping communities progress and thrive. In his research, he mentions that COVID-19 has significantly impacted Nepali worker’s income. The virus has also set back the progress that Nepal had achieved in other areas.
Sustainable Development Goals in Nepal
For years, Nepal has dedicated itself to the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. In 2019, the U.N. recorded improvements in education, gender equality and economic opportunity. It noted, “Similarly, over 90% of the population has access to drinking water and about 99% has access to basic sanitation facilities. More than 88% of the population has access to electricity.” This means it achieved its “target of per capita electricity consumption set for 2019.” Additionally, in 2019, Nepal exceeded its SDGs in community-based forest management as well as internet density (SDG17).
In 2018, Nepal’s tourism revenue consisted of 7.9% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Before the pandemic, the country created the ‘Visit Nepal 2020’ campaign. The campaign intended to attract more tourists, create new jobs and potentially make $2 billion in revenue. Due to lockdowns, Nepal not only lost its tourism but was also significantly set back in its Sustainable Development Goals. David Camacho said, “You have hundreds of thousands of people who are now out of work, who have no income, who are already poverty-stricken and their supply routes are cut off.” He further mentioned that food and supply deliveries to these more “remote areas” are also much lower.
According to David Camacho, COVID-19 has impacted tourism the most in Nepal since tourism is extremely important to the livelihoods of the locals. COVID-19 has shut down businesses like travel agencies, tour guides and tea houses due to lockdown procedures. Since Nepal built its economy around tourism, the loss of that tourism has crippled the country and driven its citizens into unemployment and poverty.
Five14 is a company that helped start an adventure travel company, a catering company, Karios Café, a bed and breakfast, a sales office and a non-profit foundation. Its goal was to provide living wages to the inhabitants of a village in Nuwakot, a red light district. Most of the women in the village traveled to brothels in India to send wages back to people at home. With the help of the Five14 team, the village became prosperous. It is now known as the leading homestay destination in Nepal. This eliminated the need for women to endure exploitation in India for the sake of village survival.
Poverty affects several villages in Nepal. Many families “end up selling, sadly, their daughters into prostitution because that’s one of the few things that actually provide some form of revenue for them,” according to Camacho. He said that Five14 has “been able to fight human trafficking providing even just a tiny bit of income for these people, even $.50 to $1 a day.” Even this small amount can provide food for families. “One of the villages where they had worked […] had been one of the most trafficked areas in Nepal and now it’s virtually non-existent there.”
COVID-19, Tourism and Exporting Workers
The pandemic puts villages such as this at tremendous risk. Without the tourism income, Nepalese must endure exploitive conditions to survive. Camacho continued to speak on the danger of these villages losing tourism revenue in Nepal. He said that because of COVID-19, they cannot engage in the tourism that once protected their livelihoods.
In addition to Nepalese making a living through tourism, Nepal is considered an exporter of people because of how many people leave the country to find work. In 2020, thousands of Nepalese found themselves trapped at the border unable to return to their families. Human Rights Watch said of the situation, “Nepal’s government faces huge challenges to keep its people safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, but its response should not be denying citizens the right to come home.”
According to the Journal of Tourism and Adventure, the pandemic has adversely affected every subsector of the tourism industry in Nepal.” This has created a ripple effect “on the economic and social systems.” COVID-19 has significantly set back Nepal’s active progress in reaching its Sustainable Development Goals. Helping the Nepalese people recover and thrive while protecting their rich culture will be an immensely difficult task.
Help for Nepal
The Borgen Project asked David Camacho if there were organizations that have been helping throughout the pandemic. Medical organizations such as the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders have been providing medical assistance. India has provided aid by donating COVID-19 tests and vaccines. An organization called Mountain Child has offered relief to orphans and abandoned children.
Studying anthropologists such as David Camacho hope to use anthropology as a tool to protect people while providing aid for a society to progress. Disasters such as COVID-19 deplete the tourism revenue in Nepal and slow down economic and humanitarian progress. Still, David Camacho highlights that it is important to work alongside the culture and understand the people despite the long years of setbacks.
Camacho believes that western anthropologists throughout history would look at these villages and say, ‘Oh, these people need to adapt to the modern world.’ He says that “was very detrimental” and has “given anthropology a very bad name.” According to Camacho, “these groups have been surviving for centuries on their own. And they’ve got some very unique and very beautiful things about their culture that you don’t want to lose. There are things that you can do to improve their quality of life and their living.”
Aid and Future Progress
During the pandemic, Nepal has received medical assistance from various countries and organizations. It will require time and resilience for the country to recover. However, the tourism revenue in Nepal sustains Nepalese people and provides ethical alternatives for labor. Anthropologists continue to study the culture and the needs of the people in the hopes of contributing ethical developmental aid while preserving the tourism revenue and social progress in Nepal.
– Hannah Brock