Mountaineers looking to scale Nepal's Himalayan peaks can finally do so for the first time in seven months. The country has reopened to foreign travellers, though some have criticised the move as the coronavirus pandemic has left the country short of hospital beds.
Nepal is home to eight of the 14 highest mountains in the world, including the holy grail for climbers - Mount Everest. Foreign visitors are a major source of income for Nepal, especially for the small town of Lukla which is often used as a base for Mount Everest climbers.
Which nationalities can visit Nepal?
For now, the reopening will come with restrictions and is mainly limited to those seeking to climb or trek its famous peaks. Rudra Singh Tamang, director general of Nepal’s Department of Tourism said:
“We are not opening the country for all visitors and only mountaineers and trekkers who have already had a permit taken prior permit will be allowed to come to Nepal.
“We are opening to a sector of visitors who we know we can handle and manage.”
COVID-19 travel requirements for Nepal
Rather than a visa on arrival, visitors now need to get prior approval, give details of their itinerary, hire a local outfitting company and have health insurance that covers COVID-19 treatment.
Tourists are required to take a coronavirus test before leaving their home country, stay for a week in quarantine at a hotel in Kathmandu (Nepal’s capital city) and then take another coronavirus test before being allowed to travel onward.
Local guides, porters, cooks and helpers who will be part of any mountaineering support team will also be required to take coronavirus tests and prove they have been living in areas with no infections for the past two weeks.
“We are trying to revive the tourism industry that was badly hit by the pandemic, but we are not taking any changes or any risks,” said Tamang. “We did a test run just recently with a foreign expedition team and now have a good idea of how to manage the adventure tourists.”
The impact of COVID-19 on Nepal
An estimated 800,000 people working in the tourism industry have been impacted by the pause in tourism, with locals working in the mountains the hardest hit. They normally make enough money during the spring and autumn seasons to last them all year.
Spring is the main mountaineering season for climbers who come to Nepal to attempt to climb its highest peaks, while the autumn months are popular for trekkers who come to hike the mountain trails. It’s now hoped that some of the revenue lost from tourism can be scraped back as Nepal reopens for autumn.
Coronavirus in Nepal
Nepal has reported 176,500 coronavirus infections since the pandemic began and 984 deaths. The nation of 30 million people is running short on hospital beds and the government has asked patients with less than life threatening symptoms to stay at home in isolation.
The pandemic hit as Nepal was preparing to double the number of tourist arrivals with a government campaign declaring 2020 as ‘Visit Nepal’ year.
Earlier in the autumn, a team of mountaineers from Bahrain were given special permission to scale Mount Lobuche and Mount Manaslu. They were made to follow all the new rules placed by the government and reported no problems.
The success of the expedition was celebrated by the mountaineering community in Nepal, as was the government decision to reopen to all qualified mountaineers and trekkers in October.
“We need to give a small ray of hope to the people in the adventure tourism industry that there is still a future somewhere to look forward to,” Tamang said.
The prospect of trekkers and mountaineers returning to Nepal has been a welcome piece of news for those in the industry.
“We in the adventure tourism industry are very excited that the country is finally open, and we are beginning to get many calls and inquiries from foreign clients,” said Ang Tshering of Asian Trekking in Kathmandu.
He said there is particular interest in the spring 2021 climbing season, especially for Mount Everest.
Still, with the virus continuing to spread in many parts of the world, it will take time for things to return to normal.
On a recent day in the tourist hub of Thamel in Kathmandu, most of the shops, restaurants, pubs and hotels remained closed. The shops normally selling down jackets, tents, hiking boots and survival equipment were mostly closed and those that were open had few if any customers.
“We haven’t had any customers since March" said Bir Lama, who sells hiking and mountaineering gear.
“While I am paying rent, draining my savings, I am keeping the shop open only to keep myself from going insane.”