The Himalayan country and its sherpas race against time to save themselves and the tourism sector from climate change
As the frequency and intensity of freak weather events increase, the government of Nepal in collaboration with the Department for International Development, United Kingdom, as well as private actors and think tanks has started assessing the impacts of climate change on its tourism sector as well as livelihoods of ethnic minority communities in the state.
Phurba Sherpa, former chair of the Nepal National Mountain Guides Association, says: "Some of the mountains that drew trekkers to Nepal are becoming less and less appealing. The loss of snow cover makes them less scenic, and when there is no snow tourists complain. It has also made climbing trails more dangerous. Tourists wanted to hire me as a guide to climb Pasangpeak but I had to refuse. It was too dangerous."
He is one of the torch-bearers of the sherpa community — an ethnic group famous for their mountaineering skills and local knowledge. They are vital to the tourism industry in Nepal, which is endowed with eight of the world’s ten highest peaks, making it a hotspot for climbers, trekkers and adventure-seekers. Tourists rely on their discretion; however, sherpas’ way of life is now under threat from the changing climate.
Phurba Sherpa speaks of the need for a paradigm shift in the way they work: "We can’t continue as mere porters like we have for centuries; we now have to evolve into mentors and need to be equipped with sophisticated technology. We also need a better understanding of the rescue and evacuation operations to meet extreme weather events. This will build trust with tourists and help save lives."
Nepal’s tourism is vulnerable to climate change
Tourism is one of the largest industries in Nepal and contributed 85.2.8 billion rupees ($0.8 billion) to its economy – equivalent to 4% of total gross domestic product (GDP) – in 2017. Over half a million international tourists visited Nepal in 2017, and the sector supported 426,395 jobs. The Nepal government aims to attract 2 million tourists over the next two years. But this sector is increasingly under direct and indirect threat from climate change.
High temperatures, unpredictable rainfall, floods, landslides, snow cover melt and snow line retreat, increase or decrease in river discharge and quality of river discharge directly affect the trekking and hiking experience.
The situation has taken a toll on local cultures, their traditions and rituals as well. For instance, every house in Lo Manthang in the upper Mustang region of Nepal contributes grains and chang (local beer) to prepare a feast for the whole village during local festivals. However, an important festival like Tiji is losing its charm as the villages of Samjhong and Dhe have been unable to spare grain.
The General Secretary of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, Kul Bahadur Gurung, speaks about the gradual emergence of climate change in the consciousness of the private sector. “Fifteen years ago, climate change discussions were limited to the academia. You cannot ignore it anymore. We used to have snowfall at 3,500 metre at Annapurna or Langtang. Nowadays, we go up to 4,000 metre and still there is no snow. We realise now that climate change has a lot to do with it.”
According to the Climate Change Vulnerability Index, Nepal is fourth among the countries most at risk. However, the linkage between climate change and tourism was neither well established nor well understood.
It was only after the frequency and intensity of extreme events increased that the impact of climate change on the tourism sector became a part of the mainstream discourse.
One such event was a freak blizzard and avalanche in the Annapurna circuit, triggered by the tail of cyclone Hudhud, which led to 43 deaths in 2014. The local and international media called it Nepal’s worst trekking disaster.
The beginning of dialogue
These concerns came to the fore during the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) formulation process in 2015–2017, which aimed to improve the institutional capacity of the government to implement a long-term climate-resilient development plan in Nepal. Earlier in 2010, the government had prepared the National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) to deal with urgent climate impacts; however, this left out the tourism sector. The NAP identified this as an oversight and included tourism as part of the nine thematic and cross-cutting areas for prioritised action.
The Department for International Development, United Kingdom, is also assisting the government of Nepal to assess the impacts of climate change on the tourism sector and to develop measures to build resilience.
The Adaptation to Climate Change Team (ACT) advocated the inclusion of tourism as a key thematic area as well as active collaboration with the private sector. “We brought the attention of the government and the private sector to this issue during the NAP process. The stakeholders realised the need to have tourism as an additional sector of focus. Extreme events like Hudhud became the tipping point," says Sunil Acharya, ACT team leader in Nepal.
Vinod Gautam, focal point on climate change in the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, says: “Our tourism industry relies on nature. If we don’t invest in resilience then risks will continue to increase and, eventually, the tourists will stop coming.”
ACT realised there was a need to go beyond the NAP and engage the private sector to chalk out an operational pathway to make this vital industry more resilient to climate change. Knowledge gaps and shortage of concrete adaptation actions proved a hurdle.
Therefore, ACT went to stakeholders with the idea of conducting a rigorous economic impact assessment of climate change on tourism. “What’s the impact of climate change in terms of loss to GDP? That’s the question we wanted to answer,” says Acharya.
Economic impact assessment and options for resilience
The ACT team and the Nepal government jointly conducted an economic impact assessment of climate change on tourism. The assessment revealed that the economic cost of loss and damage in the sector was equivalent to an annual average of 2–3% of total GDP between 1971 and 2015. With increasing impacts, this loss and damage will be even more significant.
“This assessment will help us establish a baseline to make more informed decisions,” says Gautam.
ACT, along with private sector actors proposed a series of measures, including supply chain management, climate risk insurance and corporate social responsibility, legal frameworks and capacity-building.
ACT is in the process of selecting pilot projects to carry out the measures, including an advanced early warning system. The current warning system provides basic information on temperature, sunrise and sunset. A more sophisticated system, that gives actionable weather intelligence and stimulates those at risk to act, would build tourist confidence.
Another important recommendation is making climate investments part of a business approach to corporate social responsibility, which would contribute to sustainable development.
A climate action platform is also being conceptualised, whereby all private sector actors can come together to address issues relating to tourism and climate change. This platform could also raise financial resources as and when required. Climate-proofing the National Tourism Strategic Plan will guide government, local communities, the tourism industry as well as visitors, on matters related to responsible and sustainable tourism.
Tourism is vital to Nepal’s growth and development, and the private sector will need to take the lead in building resilience, as well as reinventing itself to address the issue. A climate-resilient tourism sector would also help Phurba and other members of his community safeguard their livelihoods.
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