The Climate sits down with freelance trek leader Raju Gurung-Raaj to discuss environmental degradation in Nepal, and the effect of mass tourism in his industry.
Raju, a trek and expedition guide and high altitude consultant based in Kathmandu, has been working in the field his entire adult life; before receiving his guiding licence in 2007, he worked as a porter for treks and expeditions across Nepal. Now, having led treks in Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan for foreign visitors and domestic hikers alike, he reflects on the changes he has observed in the industry – and the environment – in the past few decades.
“I have seen so many changes in the Himalayas,” he starts off. “Trekking to base camp, for example – we are losing the snow and ice caps of the mountains, and now it’s very hard to see the snow or ice, even on a clear day. Even the Himalayan forests are struggling – they’re not growing properly.”
Raju tells me about Nepal’s infamous monsoon season, which he says used to begin from June, and sometimes earlier. “Now it doesn’t start until the middle of July, so until then we just don’t get rainfall. It always finished at the end of September, but this year it was raining until October 20th. This is not normal. It’s terrible for Nepali people who work in agriculture here, since they can’t control their water supply.” Indeed, last year, the monsoon continued two weeks after it was predicted to end, causing fatal landslides and flash floods across central and western Nepal.
While the climate crisis alone deeply affects Nepalese agriculture, Raju acknowledges that one of the key contributors to Nepal’s environmental degradation is also one of its key economic tenets: international tourism.
When I ask how he believes tourism impacts the environment in Nepal, he ponders the question. “Well, we use mostly old cars in Nepal, but as the tourists come, they increase the number we have to use by quite a bit, so the pollution in the cities is getting worse.” Indeed, Kathmandu overtook Delhi and topped the most polluted capitals lists in 2023, beating Jakarta, Lahore and Kolkata for the spot. “But also we [in Nepal] were not particularly aware of environmental problems until recently. We have been destroying the forest for firewood to accommodate all the growing tourism.”
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He tells me that, as an expedition guide, he has seen the negative impact of international tourists in his work: namely, the degradation of hiking trails. “In some parts of the trails, the road used to be in a certain place, but over time, tourists have tried to make shortcuts, and now it is not as clear. On the road, you might not see any trash, but behind the teahouses, in the forests, that’s where we find wrappers and plastic bottles. Not all tourists are bad to the environment here: most of them are very aware and conscious not to throw their trash here, but at the same time the porters do help them.”
The role of porters in preserving Nepal’s trails is complicated, however, as Raju tells me: many sherpas and guides, especially in more remote areas, come from rural backgrounds and are less well educated. Consequently, they don’t have enough information about climate change and the environment to actually act. At the same time, even if they are aware, the economic benefit of tourism can negate any perceived moral obligation to “do the right thing” when it comes to the climate. In other words, it just isn’t as immediate of a problem when compared with the threat of direct poverty.
Raju, whose trek guiding expertise has taken him all over South Asia, sees the direct impact of tourism – or lack thereof – across the region. He leads treks predominantly in his native Nepal, but has also guided over the last couple of decades in Tibet (now an autonomous region of China) and Bhutan. The latter, he says, is doing extremely well environmentally. Bhutan, the least visited country in Asia, operates what it calls a “High Value, Low Impact” policy regarding tourism: all incoming visitors must first book their trip through an official tour operator, whose prices start at $200 a day minimum, thus ensuring economic benefit to the country and minimising environmental degradation.
Nepal, whose government has implemented no such requirements for tourists, is the third-most visited country in South Asia, and Raju says this is where he sees the most environmental trouble. Although this comparison may help in making the case for eradicating mass tourism entirely, it remains unrealistic to expect a country that boasts Mount Everest to model its tourism policy after Bhutan, or similar remote, less visited regions.
So, how can we mitigate the effects of tourism on the Nepalese environment, if at all? “We can do so many things for the future,” Raju tells me. “Not using firewood, minimising pollution through minimal transportation and more. But importantly for tourists: before you book your tours or expeditions, check the company you are using. What responsibility do they have to the environment? Do they have a good reputation in this?”
As our conversation comes to a close, it becomes clear that although the onus should not be on individual tourists alone to combat the effects of climate change, anyone who is planning a hiking trip does have a responsibility to the country they visit. Do your research into your tour operator, and any companies you might be using on your trip. Minimise using fuel-inefficient taxis during your trip, however affordable, and respect the natural environment. If you are going to add to the growing number of tourists in the jewel of the Himalayas, make sure you’re doing everything you can to do it right.
If you are visiting Nepal in the near future and looking for accommodation in the capital, be sure to contact Raju Gurung-Raaj at Planet Nomad.