Is there a hint of a new maturity among the travel trade these days? Whereas before tourism was either seen as the destroyer of culture and environment or the sole panacea of poor countries with nothing to sell but their exoticism, a middle-path attitude was recently being sounded about the industry’s merits and its faults.
For one, at the PATA conference in Kathmandu in February on adventure travel, the buzzwords were conservation, the environment’s carrying capacity, and cultural sensitivity, even though what followed were three days of business among South Asian sellers and overseas buyers.
As usual, the subject of controls on the number of tourist arrivals as well as that of tourism’s impact on the environment were touched. Keynote speaker, Toni Hagen, often credited with opening Nepal to the world, for example, criticised HMG/Nepal’s target of hosting 1 million tourists by the year 2000 as “dangerous for Nepal.” Instead, seek “quality tourists,” Hagen urged; that is, trade numbers for better-paying tourists.
A call to close the Annapurna Sanctuary and the Everest regions in Nepal for a few years “to give them a chance to revive” was made by Capt. M.S. Kohli, president of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. Kohli, an Everest summiter, is also chairman of the recently formed Himalayan Adventure Trust, which will work to protect the Himalaya, and has already drawn up a code of conduct and ethics for tour operators and visitors.
Hagen also posed the all-important question of tourism in Nepal: Would the deterioration of Nepal’s ecology be saved or the Nepali economy collapse if tourism was abolished? The answer is no on both counts, according to Hagen. With regard to the environment, for instance, Hagen said that Nepal’s 50,000 foreign trekkers used a negligible 6400 tons per year of fuel-wood against more than 8 million tons consumed by the country’s 18 million natives.
Cultural erosion, particularly from mass tourism, however, is a much graver threat, Hagen said: “Ecological damages are theoretically reversible. The loss of cultural substance and identity is irreversible, which no money or technical measure can buy back.” He also urged HMG/Nepal to look to alternative sources, and cited the example of the highly successful carpet- manufacturing industry, which earns an estimated U$ 60 million in foreign exchange besides generating wide employment.
There was some good news for the travel industry. Leading publications are forecasting that the 1990’s will be the green decade and outdoors will be in, said Ken Chamberlain, executive vice president of PATA. If so, the region’s natural assets make it particularly amenable to cash in on the higher-yielding and less-innocuous form of tourism called “adventure travel.”
“If you put together environment, outdoors, nature, fitness, and excitement, no form of travel fits the bill better than adventure travel,” said Chamberlain. He characterised adventure travel as: out of the ordinary; distance from civilisation; outdoors; a limited degree of perceived risk; experiencing things that would otherwise be difficult to arrange; active participation. The spectrum included everything from mountaineering and cultural sightseeing to bird- watching.
In a recent survey among what are called Nature Oriented Tour Operators in the U.S., according to him, Nepal emerged as the top destination in their promotions, with India not far behind. Not surprising considering the tremendous diversity of South Asia: high mountains, rivers, desert and jungle, monks and mystics, palaces and fortresses, elephants and tigers, a unique mixture of natural grandeur and ancient culture.
In spite of South Asia’s “image problems,” said Chamberlain, the region often delivered the unexpected, and is meant for the adventurous, for the person who is something of a romantic.