From The Perspective Of Nepal: Sustainable and Ethical Adventure Travel
September 16, 2019
From the pages of Issue 4: Plans Change
By Mary Jackson, Ph.D. | @brittlestar_sustainability
What comes to mind when you think of Nepal or Mount Everest? Sweeping panoramas of glaciated peaks and prayer flags, incense and monks in burgundy robes, or humans lined up like lemmings en route to the top of the world? Those images are not inaccurate, but Nepal is more than its common perceptions. It is diverse in history, culture, and environment. Sociopolitical and cultural complexities reflect the topography and ecological diversity of the country, from the grasslands of Terai to the top of Everest. So why do many Western travelers have imaginations of Shangri La? These questions led me to ponder the motivations and impacts of travel to this (once) small kingdom. It was time to interrogate my own participation as an adventure traveler and examine possibilities of sustainable and ethical travel.
Arguably, adventure and exploration are as old as humankind because our instincts have always led us afar from our ancestral homes. Yet adventure travel is a relic of European imperialism and romanticism, which has evolved from colonial quests for domination of place and people, to spiritual or consumerist escapes from the modern world, to an attempt to reconnect with nature. Through this lens, motivations and perceptions are deeply rooted in colonialist ideals.
The romanticization of climbing or visiting Everest, or Chomolungma by the Indigenous name, is not accidental. You (we), the Western climber, armchair mountaineer, or the newer neologism of “outdoorist,” are meant to idolize and dream of Everest. It is meant to metaphorically represent your dreams, hopes, wishes, and challenges. Climbing Everest is meant to be your internal mountain to claim and summit as a representation of all that you can achieve. For if you can’t literally claim it as your own, like a man placing the flag on a newly colonized land, it can at least be symbolic of your power. The first ascent of Everest was managed and manipulated by the media––from mapping to climbing Everest––it was a cartographic colonization. If the British could not literally colonize Tibet or Nepal, they could stand atop the highest peak and declare colonial continuance. And what a delightful coincidence for them that this summit occurred on the eve of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the heroes of mountaineering, were used by the media to reestablish the then-waning power of Great Britain.
In subsequent years, and through the growth of a booming capitalist economy, the mountain became more of a commodity. It was sold as an experience, to mostly businessmen, to show power and strength. And today, the legacy of power lingers. The common person from any place on the globe, with enough sponsorships or disposable income and a moderate level of experience, can climb atop the world and also show their power, metaphorical or not.
8,306 people have summited Everest and 30-40,000 people trek to Nepal base camp each year. Overcrowding, overdevelopment, and climate change, among other issues, are continuing to shape the dynamic culture of this place. Tourism is in large part run by the locals who provide tourism infrastructure, the Sherpa (the ethnic group of Khumbu, the Everest region). Yet Sherpa and their environment have been, and continue to be, exploited by their government and Westerners who climb and adventure in their mountains and research their culture. It has shifted aspects of their relationship with the land, economic incentives, and spirituality regarding the mountains.
Khumbu serves as a kind of ground-zero for the adventure industry and its discourse. It is a packaged deal, an idealized bucket list journey, promoted as a spiritual and mystical place where one can travel like Indiana Jones. Everest is saturated in global media and mountaineering tropes. Yet it is melting, and fast. The colonial idealization of the early years of Everest and the commercialized climbs and treks make this not a wild place of mountains, but a complex and globalized phenomenon. From this vantage, ethical and sustainable tourism in Nepal can also be considered from a global perspective.
The following seven points are meant as a starting point for travelers to consider and seek to decolonize tourism:
- Educate and Respect Culture: Learn about the diverse cultures of where you travel. What are Indigenous beliefs of the land? What customs and language can you consider learning? How can you think about spirituality and religion without appropriating?
- Sustainability: Consider your impact especially in delicate bioregions. Garbage is not always carried out or recycled, and more often than not, may be burned. Don’t bring single-use plastic or throw away disposable products. On mountain treks, avoid packaged foods and drinks and eat as the locals eat. Consider limiting plane travel to lessen your carbon footprint. What alternative transportation can you find?
- Climate Change: Actions at home impact the very glaciers that create the Himalaya. You can see the glaciers melt in real-time trekking in Nepal or flying over Greenland. From your plane ride, to the shoes you wear, to who you voted for, contributed to it. Sustainability is not only to be solved by the actions of corporations but also by cultural shifts in how we consume and perceive our relationships with more-than-human nature.
- Conscious and Critical Media: Do you photograph and describe travels through an idealized perspective? Attempt to not commodify or romanticize, as this constructs a false narrative. Did you really travel if you didn’t post on social media? And most importantly, do not take pictures without consent, whether or not you post them online.
- Legacy of Colonialism: Know the history of where you are going. How has this country been impacted by colonialism or imperialism (even if it was never a colony like Nepal)? How has globalization helped or hindered this place? Understand that Nepal, or Cambodia, or Tanzania (wherever you go) is not as one dimensional as an overly-edited, dreamy Instagram post might have you believe. These are homes where people live and work and die. You are a visitor and not entitled to anything.
- Outdoor Industry and Gear: Why do you need fancy gear? The outdoor industry needs you to keep buying things and is really good at greenwashing products. Of course we need gear, but consider purchasing second hand or from companies with an emphasis on sustainable manufacturing, repair, and recycling. Better yet, support local manufacturers and purchase gear during your travels. Nepal has its own amazing versions of brand name gear.
- Alternatives: Overtourism is an issue, from Everest Base Camp to Machu Picchu. Want to climb Everest? Consider the less crowded and impacted North/Tibetan side, or trek elsewhere, like from Jiri or western Nepal. Many areas could bene t from local and sustainable tourism. Seek out these places.