Market Forces on Everest

"His Majesty's Government, taking into consideration the pressure on the environment of the Khumbu region and to lessen the pressure in the area and to conserve the environment, has decided to regulate the number and size of expeditions." So reads the official explanation for the decision taken in 1993 to restrict the number of members on mountaineering teams going to the Khumbu region, while limiting the number of teams on Everest itself, and to raise the royalty for climbing Everest from U$ 10,000 to U$ 50,000.

For quite a while there had been a clamour for a restrictive policy, including from Edmund Hillary, who had called for a five-year moratorium on Everest, although this would have been quite hard to achieve since the Chinese had no intention of closing the mountain from their side, international opinion notwithstanding. Thus, 'long overdue' was what many people concerned with mountains in Nepal felt about the change in the regulations.

The government's logic was simple. Instead of having a dozen or so teams paying ten thousand dollars apiece, if two or three expeditions paid fifty thousand each, the national treasury would still be receiving more or less the same amount. Mountaineering activities would be diverted elsewhere in Nepal to compensate for business lost from Everest by trekking agencies. The local economy would suffer a bit due to the absence of the hundreds of porters that swarmed up to Khumbu every climbing season (that was partly what the new regulations were designed to check), but would benefit from the increasingly popular policy of 'ploughing back' the revenue into the area earned from the peaks. And all would be well.

A rosy scenario, indeed! Unfortunately, mountaineering has not shifted to elsewhere within Nepal. It has instead shifted to Tibet. This past spring saw 11 expeditions tackle Everest from the northern side against only three from Nepal. (Of those three, two had to be billed 'clean-up' expeditions in order to get around the 'one-route-one-team rule, since all three took the South Col route. The regulations clearly state: "Only one team shall be permitted to climb Sagarmatha by each separate route in one season." But this being a 'policy matter' it can easily be circumvented by a cabinet decision. Why the council of ministers should be called upon to look into such inconsequential matters of deciding whether an expedition is a 'clean-up' or not, beats reason, since clean-up or otherwise, the U$ 50,000 royalty has to be coughed up.

The fact that there are more expeditions going to Tibet is lost on the Ministry of Tourism. It points out that there has been no decrease in the number of expeditions—around 100 every year—corning to Nepal over the last decade. Stagnation is better than decline.

When questioned why no effort has been made by the government to market other mountains of Nepal while Everest is being kept at abeyance, Prachanda Man Shrestha, Acting Director General of the Department of Tourism, threw the ball to private operators, saying that the private sector expects everything to be served on a platter. For their part, the operators throw the ball right back, retorting that all the publicity Nepal has received thus far has been due to their efforts and no thanks to the Ministry or its Department.

Everyone agrees that climbers cannot be forced to scale this mountain or that. If they want to climb Everest, does it do to offer a substitute mountain even if it is for free? Besides, it is certain that Nepal is losing out on the Everest market. For one thing, China's fee of U$ 5500 for an Everest expedition is a sure draw even without considering the added charm of going to Tibet.

US 45,000 or US 13,000

Contributing to the declining numbers on Everest from the Nepali side, is the quite recent development of 'commercial climbing'. Since climbing Everest has become such a regular affair, corporate sponsors are becoming as scarce as yeti footprints. Most of the expeditions on Everest nowadays are 'guided climbs,' operated like any other tour, with paying clients.

Commercial climbs go for the South Col route, which is booked in advance for years to come. The only way to get out-of turn permits is to don the clean-up garb. Tour operators cannot, for obvious reasons, afford to stand in line for years but that could not be helped till this year since it used to assumed that the northern route was not viable for paying climbers because of the longer climb it entailed.

This spring, however, saw 19 clients put on the Everest summit by five different operators from the Tibetan side, while both commercial expeditions from the south were unsuccessful. Henceforth, more such expeditions can be expected to go north where there is no queue. As for the clients, unless they have a specific reason to go from the south, such as wanting to retrace the footsteps of Tenzing and Hillary or something else, it is a matter of simple economy to prefer Tibet. To take an example, a Germany-based operator is selling Everest climbs for U$ 45,000 from Nepal and a mere U$ 13,000 from Tibet.

Besides the steep royalty, climbing Everest from Nepal has other attendant encumbrances as well, like the garbage deposit and the more troublesome bureaucratic red tape. Kathmandu-based trekking agents complain of the stonewalling tactics of the Ministry of Tourism regarding issuance of permits, so much so that they claim it is easier for them to get a permit from Lhasa than from the Nepali authorities.

The operators are not happy with the 1993 regulations and remember being taken unawares when the announcement was made. No attempt was made to list their views on the matter, and it seems that the then Minister decided to go for the decision on the basis of a few environmentalist climbers who got his ear. A few of the businessmen even suspect a sinister vested interest in making it so difficult for climbers to climb in Nepal while China welcomes them with open arms. Keeping the mountain clean is fine, they say, but that can only be done with strict adherence to rules, which is not happening.

For the moment, trekking/mountaineering agencies do not have much to complain about. Mountaineering might not be picking up in Nepal but it is certainly growing across the border to the north, and it is mostly the Nepali operators who go over to provide the services. The Tibetans do not have the required infrastructure to manage expeditions and so this aspect is still completely in the hands of Nepali agents. But the Tibetans are learning fast and very soon the Chinese are likely to come up with regulations similar to Nepal's that require a local handling agent. That will mean good-bye to Kathmandu's domination of the mountaineering trade in the plateau.

There remains one more legacy of the new regulations that has not been addressed. Kathmandu agents and their employees might be flying high for now but no one pauses to think about the hundreds of porters who have lost their seasonal livelihood of carrying loads up to the Everest Base Camp. On average, 250 porters are required by an Everest expedition and hundreds of porters from the lower hills have themselves earned cash income while providing stimulus to business in Khumbu and the approach route.

About this, everybody in the trade and in the government seems apologetic: it is not possible to please everyone at the same time. That is about as far as it goes.

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Himal Southasian