By Sangam Prasai
Kathmandu, Mar 17 (efe-epa).- Nepal’s key tourism sector, which generates more than a million jobs annually in the impoverished Himalayan nation, has been dealt a crushing blow by the ongoing new coronavirus pandemic just ahead of the start of the usually lucrative spring season.
Although only one person has tested positive for the disease in Nepal so far, on 12 March, the government decided to stop issuing on-arrival tourist visas and canceled all mountaineering expeditions, including Everest ascents, a day after the WHO declared the outbreak a pandemic.
This has especially affected the Sherpas, a community based in the mountains which is known for its climbing skills and the capacity to survive in harsh conditions at high altitudes, which makes them ideal mountain guides. A large number of Sherpas are employed in the sector in various capacities.
Kami Rita Sherpa, a former guide who holds the world record for most Everest ascents (24), told EFE that his plans to make another expedition to the peak had been thwarted by the epidemic.
“I can climb Everest in the next season, of autumn, but it’s painful that thousands of climbing guides, porters, trekking guides and other workers in the mountain region have been thrown out of jobs,” said the 50-year-old.
Sherpa said that porters, who depended on the seasonal employment for basic necessities such as the school fees for their children, might be forced to take loans in order to survive.
According to tourism ministry statistics, around 20,000 tourist guides are set to lose employment due to restrictions, while a similar number working in the hospitality and aviation industries has also been affected.
However the overall loss to the economy is even more significant, as the tourism sector contributes around 7.9 percent of the GDP.
In 2018, tourism in Nepal generated around $2 billion in revenue and supported more than 1.05 million jobs directly and indirectly, according to the annual World Travel and Tourism Council research report.
The hardest hit have been the businesses revolving around the Everest, that include porters, hotels and lodges, that survive on spring mountaineering. Experienced climbing guides can earn anything between $8,000 and $1.2 million in a single season.
To put this into perspective, the average per capita income stands at around $1,000 in Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world.
“Cancellation of this year’s spring Everest expedition will mean a big blow to expedition operators,” said Mingma Sherpa, managing director of Seven Summit Treks, the largest operator of mountaineering expeditions in the country.
“It’s hard to believe. The source of income for many sherpas has stopped, it’s disappointing,” said Mingma, adding that 60 climbers had already registered with the company to climb the world’s highest peak before the authorities canceled expeditions.
Ang Tashi Sherpa, proprietor of the Sherpa Lodge and Coffee Shop in Lukla, the gateway to Everest, said his business was staring at massive losses at a time of the year when he would normally earn at least $1500 per day.
“There are no trekkers at all in the Everest region. It’s hard to believe,” he told EFE.
“We don’t have the figures for the actual losses, but we can estimate that billions of rupees have been wiped out,” said Santa Bir Lama, president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.
Even the government’s revenues from climbing permits, which amount to around $4 million annually, are set to take a hit. Foreigners pay $11,000 to obtain a permit to climb the Everest and spend anywhere between $40,000 and $90,000 for the entire expedition.
Aditya Baral, country director of travel booking website XcelTrip Nepal, said the COVID-19 outbreak could prove even more damaging than a massive earthquake in 2015 that had affected the sector.
“This is perhaps the most extensive hit we’ve (ever) taken in the travel industry,” he said.