Andrew Zimmern of the show Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern has a simple request: “Please be a traveler, not a tourist.” In Nepal, many tourism agencies are attempting to define this fine line and are doing it with ecotourism.
Nepal is a massively underrated, much-overlooked gem of a country tucked away between the two vast nations of India and China. Most of the travelers I met there seemed to fall into two distinct categories: either they were bedecked in hiking gear, ready to embark on a trek, or they had ended up in Kathmandu in transit from one destination to the next. In both scenarios, the result was the same: everyone was knocked sideways by the unexpected charm of Nepal.
Nepal was once a hippie haven. Travelers came by the truckloads to partake in the once legal pastime of smoking ganja in the psychedelic Freak Street cafes. In the mid ‘70s, Nepal banned marijuana and suffered a major blow to its tourism. Since then, Nepal has been attempting to put its name back on the map, this time using nothing but its natural landscape as the lure. With its mostly mountainous terrain and stunning views of the Himalayas, Nepal is a trekker’s dream.
Unfortunately, not everyone who travels to Nepal practices environmental or cultural responsibility. Tourism has led to pollution, deforestation, and erosion of the culture. The good news is that there are a few travel organizations in Nepal that have copped onto these issues and are promoting tourism with the double goal of raising the national GDP and spreading environmental and cultural awareness.
One of these organizations is Eco Holiday Asia. Founded 7 years ago by Amrit Puri and Ashok Dhamala, the organization aims to use tourism as a tool for social and environmental good.
Eco Holiday Asia offers a wide range of options for an eco-friendly trip in Nepal, from cooking classes to treks. The main draw is, of course, trekking, and they do it with a mind for environmentalism. To reduce waste, they carry only reusable bags. To decrease deforestation, they only build gas fires. Eco Holiday Asia aims not only to be environmentally friendly, but culturally pervasive as well. Every trek includes at least one meal home cooked by a local family and the opportunity of authentic cultural exchange. These are the basics, but you also have the option to enrich your expedition with homestays and volunteer work if you so choose.
Every trek is completely customizable. You can choose the duration, the location, the culture, and the type of work you want to do. Puri and Dhamala work with local people throughout the Himalayas and surrounding areas, believing strongly that the people who are the most knowledgeable about the culture and the region should be the ones who participate in these cultural exchanges and benefit from the exchange both with knowledge and income.
Nepal is a country rich in tradition and diverse in ethnicity. From the indigenous Tamang people of the Himalayan regions to the Sherpas who fled Tibet after the Dalai Lama was exiled, you have the remarkable opportunity to be welcomed into their homes and have authentic intercultural dialogue.
The region is also diverse in religion. During your trek, you have the chance to stay with a Hindu or Buddhist family, participate in their traditions, and witness their way of life. Puri even suggests the opportunity to stay in a Buddhist monastery.
You can also choose where, or if, you want to volunteer. Examples include transporting medical equipment up to a remote clinic, working on a farm or apple orchard, teaching at a school, or planting trees, although they offer many more opportunities.
While you learn about the culture and traditions of the local people, remember that this is a cultural exchange, not a one-way street. If you can, bring items from your home, or even stories and traditions of your own to share with your hosts.
One of Eco Holiday Asia’s main goals is to improve the lives of the local people. They use tourism as a tool for positive change by inviting foreigners with expertise in various facets of income generation, sanitation, health, education, farming, and more, to share their knowledge and help improve the lives of the indigenous peoples.
Activities that promote income generation are especially useful. Every year, labor migration in Nepal is increasing. In 2014, it was reported that over 520,000 Nepalis received labor permits to work abroad in wealthier nations such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Malaysia, and more.
Though there are government agencies in Nepal devoted to skills training and job acquisition, Puri believes it’s more effective to work one-on-one with locals to teach skills. Foreigners who have come through Eco Holiday Asia in the past have taught skills such as fruit preservation, greenhouse techniques, and other modern farming methods. This has allowed the indigenous peoples to develop more marketable products, or produce more food which they can offer up on the menus of the myriad teahouses that dot the trails of Nepal’s trekking routes.
This is where you may be dubious. Isn’t the constant exchange of culture leading to cultural erosion, and isn’t that what eco-tourism is attempting to avoid? Puri explains that while some traditions may be changing in Nepal, the people are mostly keeping their culture intact, and making room for modernity where needed.
Puri gives an example of the funeral ceremonies in Nepal. Traditionally, these ceremonies last 13 days. During that time, the family members pray and are not permitted to leave the house nor divert their attention. Puri explains that in the modern world of enterprise and technology, this practice can be bad for business. If you can’t answer your phone or check your email for 13 days, your business may tank. Nowadays, families understand that to run a business, you can’t be off the grid for two weeks. Thus, the ceremonies have shortened and made room for some email and phone answering.
All aspects of the journey are customizable. Choose where you want to trek, the duration of your travels, the activities, and where and with whom you stay. Eco Holiday Asia will happily talk you through all your options, answer any questions you may have and then give you a price based on your choices. Puri, Dhamala, or one of their colleagues will also accompany you during your travels so that you have a guide to the region and an introduction to the locals, your host family, and your project.
Puri and Dhamala ensure that every encounter is beneficial for both the local people and the trekkers. Their ambition is to promote environmentalism and cultural exchange, and to include local people in a trade that has been monopolized by foreigners in so many other countries around the globe. They want to change tourism from an establishment that only caters to foreigners, to an activity that benefits both parties. Ultimately, the goal of eco-tourism should be to promote the spread of cultural understanding while giving power to the ones whose everyday lives are altered by tourism – the local people.
Ariana is a writer and world traveler. Her writing covers her three main passions: women’s empowerment, travel, and culture. The beauty of the world is not just in scenic mountain views or turquoise waters; it’s in doing the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning. For Ariana, that thing is stringing words together.