Valley tourism: The shine is off

When Simo Milojevic, the chief of the World Esperanto Association, returned to Kalh-mandu in September 1991 after 30-years, he was sorely disappointed with the noise and filth that had over taken the Valley. Kathmandu was beginning to look like any chaotic Third World city, whereas it had emerged in the mid-1950s with its centuries-old atmosphere intact — a prize destination for international travelers.

Milojevic, a Serb, arrived in 1961 for a few months to teach Esperanto an "experimental" Indo-European language. At that time, he remembers, there were only two good budget restaurants in Kathmandu, the Uttam and Aroma. "I could not afford the outrageously expensive Royal Hotel or Hotel Coronation." There were no tourist coaches. When a handful of tourists could be gotten together, guides borrowed friends cars and made do. "But if you ask me which Kathmandu I prefer, as a foreigner I prefer the quiet, simple, laid back Valley of the early 1960s."

Milojevic is not alone in his harking back to earlier, more innocent, times. The Valley´s old-world charm is rapidly eroding. Today, major parts of Kathmandu and Patan towns are indistinguishable from the congested, built-up quarters of other South Asian cities. The changes are readily obvious to the traveler who visits after  a long hiatus, much more so than to the resident who lived through them.

Tourists in their hundreds of thousands collectively contribute their share to changing the cultural facade of Kathmandu Valley. The development aid business and the inherent tilt towards "westernisation" among urbanites are the other major factors that have helped change the urban face of Kathmandu.

For the tourist, Nepal´s charms may be divided into three categories: the scenic beauty of the High Himalaya (accessed through trekking and RNAC´s mountain flights), the attraction of the hill ethnic culture (of the Sherpas, Thakalis, and others), and the cultural allure of the Kathmandu Valley. More than 180,000of the 255,000 tourists arriving every year have the Valley as their primary destination. Since the Nepal excursion is often an add-on to package tours of India, tourists have only three or four days to spend here, for which the Kathmandu sights are sufficient.

Kathmandu Valley is the mainstay of Nepal´s tourism industry, which nationally brings in about US 70 million annually and provides direct employment to more than 15,000. There are numerous ancillary benefits: tourism spawns everything from laundry services to poultry farms. Elsewhere, towns and cities which rely on their ancient architectural and cultural heritage to attract tourists strive to maintain their traditional urban character. The strict zoning codes of the old quarters of European towns are meant to do just that. The Valley´s major assets in terms of tourism are its Malla-period houses, its three durbar squares, _its-bahal courtyards, and sunken water spouts. If tourism is to continue, it is essential to keep those houses standing, the squares clean, the bahah intact and the water spouts running.

Preservation and conservation are not merely products of an emotional attachment to the past, but rather are critical to the economic health of the Valley. Maintain the character of Machindra Bahal of Patan, or prohibit non-traditional architecture from dominating the circle of houses around the Baudha stupa, and the tourists will keep coming. It is better that a 15th century bahal earns income by charging entrance fees to tourists than it be razed to provide space for a concrete structure which serves as a garment factory.

Tragically, Kathmandu and Patan towns, in particular, are fast losing their holistic historical unity and ambience — and hence their touristic allure. While their durbar squares survive as museum pieces bereft of context, the flavour of the by-lanes and bahals is fast disappearing. While it may be partially true that the lives of the inhabitants have changed enough that the old quarters are no longer viable entities, it is important to "keep up appearances", otherwise why should the tourists bother to come at all? If Venice, in northern Italy, can still sell itself as a Renaissance city (when in fact practically every economic activity derives sustenance from tourism), the towns of Kathmandu Valley have a much easier task. What is "sold" to tourists remains, at least today, by and large, the truth.

The very first tourist-eye view of the Valley from an airplane window used to be of the Patan city core surrounded by expanses of softly terraced fields of green gold or grey, depending upon the of the year. Today, ribbon development and urban sprawl strikes the incoming passenger — and smoking brick kiln chimneys. The sparkling ice cliffs of Ganesh Himal lose their shine as the plane loses height and enters layers of Kathmandu-generated smog. For an instant before the plane lands, right by the runaway threshold, the air traveler can catch a glimpse of a shanty-town that was never meant to be Kathmandu.

Just a few years ago, the drive from the airport into to wn was an unique experience as the broad curveof the Chinese-built highway took in terraced paddies and the lazily meandering Bagmati. Today, this section of the highway is lined with haphazard housing, an ice-cream factory, repair garages and welding shops, and irucks extracting sand from the Bagmati riverbed. The paddy patches are nearly gone with housing overflow from New Baneswor.

The Valley´s air pollution is not merely a concern of environmentalists and public health . It has become a dollars and cents problem for travel agents and hoteliers. "November used to be the month for mountain-watching, once the morning fog lifted," recalls Brian Whyte, a long-time observer of Nepali tourism. "This past November, there was not a day when the mountains were absolutely clear."

As the air gets dirty, so does the rest of the Valley. The tourist still experiences the flavour of the past in the bylanes, but intermingled with that flavour is the odour of uncollected garbage at temple sites, dust and diesel smoke, traffic congestion, and political graffiti.All this, added to the Hong Kong-style pseudo-westernisation of Kathmandu society will soon be enough to kill any notion of the Valley as a tourists´ haven.

It speaks to the incredible cultural strength of the Valley towns that visitors are willing to disregard all the bother for a glimpse of old Kathmandu. But the threshold of disgust will soon be reached, after which the number of tourists will start to decline. An American tourist, a landscape architect, who arrived in early January said later that she was glad to have arrived at night. This spared her the initial shock of seeing the Valley of her dreams turn out to be like any other unsightly Third World urban space.

"The wildest dreams of Kew, are but facts of Katmandu," wrote Rudy aid Kipling. The line has been quoted in travel brochures ad nauseam, but today it might be gaining a slightly different connotation. Certainly, thedecline of the Valley these past decades has been beyond the wildest of dreams.

The sordid facts of Kathmandu are items that will never get into tourist brochures, nor should they. But it is important for the planners and public alike to realise that the days are over when Kathmandu Valley´s ancient charms alone would be enough to bring tourists over. Kathmandu was once unique. Today´s international travelers have many other choices, in South Asia, Central Asia and elsewhere.

Nepal´s mountain tourism is on a solid geological foundations: the mountains (hemselves will not self-destruct. But Kathamandu´s attractions are cultural, and fragile. While congestion, pollution and environmental degradation are the bane of every Third World city, Kathmandu can hardly afford to go the way of Calcutta, Karachi or Patna — they do not depend on tourists, Vadey residents, as well as tourists, deserve a cleaner, nicer Kathmandu. Who knows, perhaps Simo Milojevic will be surprised when he visits the Valley a decade from now. Perhaps we will surprise ourselves.

International Rendezvous
Twenty years ago.Thamel was justa semi-suburb to the north of Kathmandu town, where houses were scattered among fields and vegetable patches. Five ropanis of land did not fetch even NRs 10,000 and people did notventureoutof their homes for fearof the spirits or robbers. "It seemed that this place had no future," recalls Kama Shakya, the proprietor of Kathmandu Guest House, who as a student used to pass through Thamel on his way to to the Public Science College, which lay to the north of Thamel.

Today, the fields and vegetable patches are gone. Every available square foot has been used up by hotels, restaurants, bookshops, pie shops, travel agencies and other services for tourists. Thamel has become the budget travelers´ mecca.

The catalyst for Thamel´s transformation was Shakya´s Kathmandu Guest House, which opened in 1973 and initially housed Peace Corps volunteers. Soon, budget travelers began to arrive holding little chits with the Thamel address of Shakya. The travel writers, too, discovered Kathmandu Guest House and the rooms have not been empty since. Shakya, a forester by training, encouraged his next door friends to convert their homes intolodgesandrestaurants. The transformation of Thamel had begun.

Thamel picked up where Jhochhen left off. Located at the shadow of Kathmandu´s old durbar, Jhochhen earned brief notoriety as a hippie haven in the early 1970s. It was known as"Freak Street". Of a different breed, today´s budget travelers prefer Thamel.

Today, Thamel is an international rendezvous. They come from all over, professors, doctors, writers and students, all in casual attire, to browse at Pilgrim´s Book House or dine at K.C´s. And Jimmy Carter tried the ices at Rum Doodle.  

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