Sunday, 4 October 2015

Just one story from Nepal, to show why tourism matters so much.

I was wandering along Lakeside, in Pokhara, birds a-twitter in the holy trees and Om Mani Padme Hum drifting from one of the small stores that line the street.

A man called out, 'Hello, where are you from?' It is a familiar cry. I turned to wave, saw he was wearing the baggy green of the Australian cricket team and than was enough to lure me into a conversation.

He rents bikes to tourists. His bikes - sturdy mountain bikes with polished metalwork and healthy tyres - were lined up by the side of the road. He hoped I'd hire a bike.

'I don't think so,' I tell him.

'Then maybe I can take you around on my motorbike?' His voice is higher now, and I can hear his desperation. I explain that I am meeting Tika in half an hour.

His face falls. 'I used to have a proper shop,' he explains. 'But with no tourists, I cannot afford the rent. So now I am at the side of the road.'

He has no shelter from the rain, nor scorching sun. And can only try to grab the attention of the few tourists who pass his way and hope that one of them - one would be a start - will hire one of his bikes. Then he can take just a little money home to his family.

It's a story repeated over and over and over. It's why the devastation of tourism has been at least as traumatic as as the earthquake.

And here is a picture, of Annapurna South, taken at about seven in the morning. This is the sort of view you can wake up to.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

My last blog from Nepal, and the crocodile.

It's time to think about coming home. This has been a brief trip, with the main aim of finding out about tourism here and what I might do to help its revival. I have learned so much, and it will take a while to absorb it all. But I ideas, which I shall share when they are less flimsy.

We left Pokhara (Tika and I) and spent a night in Bandipur. It was, once, a trading post with as great a significance as any city on the Silk Road. Now, with real roads constructed in the valley, it now longer bustles with market traders and is little more than a big village. But it has been beautifully restored. There is a lovely street, lined with small cafes and hotels and little shops selling snacks or tourist paraphernalia, each with carved wooden doors and shutters. The intrepid can go paragliding, but I preferred to keep my feet on the ground and sit with a fresh lemon soda to write.

There are many such small towns in Nepal: Tansen, on a ridge south of Pokhara; Gorkha, which will soon be restored to its former glory. Any tourist needing a break from the bustle of Pokhara or Kathmandu would find quieter corners in these half-forgotten towns.

And then I came to Chitwan, to the National Park. There are a few tourists here - not enough, for this is on the main tour-group route. Although it's busy, you can never forget just how close you are to the jungle. I did the elephant ride, of course, and saw a mother rhino bumbling along with her baby. I did a wonderful canoe trip down the river, with nothing but the burble of the river and cries of the birds. And a sudden crocodile fight to shatter the peace (a bit of an 'oh shit' moment as we were close by, but it will be fun to write about when I get back).

Quiet will be harder to find here when the tourists return, although the animals will still lurk in the jungle waiting to have their photographs taken. There are plenty of great hotels and restaurants, so you can be well cared for here. The brave can always walk though the jungle and risk facing a rhino when on foot (escape by climbing a tree, I'm told).

For those wanting be away from the crowds, there are more remote National Parks in the south-west. They take an effort to get there, but well worth it for the quiet and tranquility. And the tigers.

So now - I come home on Wednesday. I will have much thinking to do. For Nepal needs more tourists, and I have promised to do all I can to encourage people to visit. Please, if you have promotional ideas, share them.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

What a privilege, being here as Nepal celebrated being Nepal!

What an astonishing country this is. I've made it from Kathmandu to Pokhara, and from there up into the mountains. (Those of us from the UK or flatlands of Europe and America know that I went up a mountain. Tika insists that mountains must have snow on the top. We agreed to differ.)

Anyway, after a couple of days pottering about the nooks and crannies of Pokhara, seduced by whiffs of incense in odd corners and the rhythms of 'om mani padme hum' drifting from every music shop, we took ourselves off to high places. To a little eco-village, sustained by solar power, with   safe, sand-filtered water and all vegetables home-grown. And at six in the morning (one of the very few times I acknowledge such an hour exists) I woke to watch the sunrise over Annapurna. With the valley still shrouded in night the mountain top appears, stark against the lightening sky, and the snow crisp and clear and sparkling. There can be few better ways to start the day. (I shall blog about this place another time - it deserves a post all to itself.)

Could I have stayed there forever? Possibly. But I am here with a job to do, to remind you all how wonderful this place is. So down we can - on the day that Nepal herself was celebrating her wonderfulness.

For this was Constitution Day! After five years of wrangling, of infighting and outfighting and sometimes sheer unpleasantness, the country has agreed a new, federal constitution. And we returned to Pokhara on the day the President added his signature.

At last. Although there is bound to be a little residual unhappiness, it looks as if Nepal can now put years of unrest behind her.

What better way to celebrate than to ride motorbikes up and down the street waving flags and cheering. Or filling the pavement outside your shop with candles? Or marching down the street with flags and music?

This was a day of uncomplicated joy! As a tourist, it was a privilege to be here. And, for those wondering whether to come here or not, I can promise you that the Nepali know how to celebrate!

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Ah Nepal - and why tourism matters so much.

I beginning to be daunted by the task I seem to have set myself. I've never believed my contribution would be any more than a drop in the ocean; but I didn't realise, till I arrived, just how huge that ocean is.

Some months ago I blogged about the ethics of returning so soon to a country devastated by an earthquake in the way Nepal as been. Gawping at people with no homes is exploitation, not tourism. It cannot be right, I suggested, to come here at a time when local people needed all their energy to rebuild their own homes - they had neither the time nor energy for tourists.

On the other hand, I posited, the country needs tourists to help the economy recover. Tourists bring foreign currency - needed here much more than sympathy and kind words.

And so I umm'ed and ah'ed about how soon I should come back. Now I'm here I can see for myself the impact that the lack of tourists has on the country itself.

I'm sure there are those, like me, who had ethical qualms about coming here.

But it seems that most visitors are put off by the thought of another earthquake. Tour groups - the life blood of tourism here - have cancelled. Chinese visitors, who are likely to spend the most, are staying away. Indian visitors are heading east, and not North this year. Australians, Europeans, everyone, or so it feels, are giving Nepal a wide berth.

An earthquake has happened once -  it can happen again. Of course it can. Yet earthquakes can happen almost anywhere. So can floods and getting run over by a bus. I understand the risk-averse sticking to places they know and love. But in previous years this country has welcomed anyone looking for the drama of the mountains or the peace of the temples.

And this year? The hotels are almost empty. Restaurants pipe music hopefully into lonely streets. Shopkeepers prop themselves against doorframes but are too dispirited to hassle anyone passing. No cries of 'I give you very good price'. Mountain guides meet by the lake and sit over tea for three hours.

Nepal can, and will, rebuild after the earthquake. But the impact on tourism runs far deeper. It is fundamental to the economy - and without it families will go hungry. Hotels and restaurants will close and those working there will return to their villages in the mountains, where they can farm enough last to be self-sufficient. Young men will leave in droves to work in India or the Middle East. The economy will implode - and who knows how long it will take to rebuild.

Right now the building blocks of tourism are here. The hotels and restaurants. The mountain guides. The scenery is not going to go away. Nor are the temples (though some need rebuilding). Nor is the kindness of the Nepali. What the country needs now is visitors.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

In four days ...

I'm heading back to Nepal.

No, I've not packed. But I have done a lot of thinking.

As you know, I have friends there and have been asked to help promote Nepal's tourism industry. It has been floundering since the earthquake. Bookings are down. Too many hotels are empty; too many restaurants quiet. Mountain guides stand around and look at maps. Yet these are hardworking people, trying to rebuild a country. For that they need money - the sort of money that tourists can bring.

I've had several people ask what they can do to help. I've had a generous donation (Tika will help find a home for that) but not everyone has money to spare. I've been given goodies to squash in my suitcase to take up to villages in the mountains (Tika will help carry them).

But the thing I really need help with is the promoting-tourism bit. I've no training in marketing. Efforts to sell my own books are a bit hit and miss. But this time the marketing matters - and I haven't the faintest idea how to do it.

At the moment, I don't even know exactly where I'll be going (Tika will ...). All I know is that I shall write about what I find - and that the writing will be slanted towards encouraging other people to visit. No doubt I'll spend time with friends, but that will not be the story. No doubt I'll sit by the lake in Pokhara and ponder, but that will not be the story. I hope I climb to the tiny coffee plantation, on the path towards Begnas Lake, to drink some of the best coffee in the world - that will only be part of the story if the lack of tourists is affecting the family.

And so please, my loyal blog-followers, can you help with the promoting-thing. If you think I'm missing something, or should emphasise something else, tell me. Ask questions (I'll have internet connections, at least some of the time). Bang on about it on Twitter and Facebook. If people get irritated that's fine - as long as they get the message.

Nepal is open for business. And it's still beautiful.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Wot - no blog post today??

I'm sorry ... well, actually I'm not sorry. For I've spent the weekend at a wedding. And sharing in the joy of two young people is far more important than anything I might write here.

Just in case you are wondering - some of you might remember Sam and Andy? And looking very different from how they did then! On top of that, they have now raised £21,500 for the hospice, which makes them very special indeed. It was a privilege to share their day.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

A post for those who don't know why I witter on about Nepal

This is a post for those of you who don't know the history of my interest in Nepal, and wonder why I keep going on about it.

It all began decades ago. In fact I can't recall when I was first intrigued by the mysteries Nepal. But when I was working I did a huge research project and promised myself that a trip to the Himalaya was an appropriate reward for finishing the thing. This was long before my days of independent travel: I joined a tour group and visited many of the most well-known sights. I tramped in the foothills of the mountains, marvelled at temples - and met Tika.

So when I set off on my gap year it made sense, after getting used to being on my own and the mechanics of travelling, to go back to Nepal. But even though I'd been there before the heat and the dust and the chaos of Kathmandu almost had me scuttling back into the airport and heading home. Tika rescued me, led me gently (and with patient good-humour) into the mayhem. We spent five weeks together, travelling through Nepal and south across the border into India. By the time he went home I had learned the essentials of managing on my own in Asia -  how to cross the road, how to buy a train ticket, how to keep clean and safe.

I couldn't leave it there. So when I went back to Nepal a few years ago I strode into Kathmandu with confidence. I understood the country, knew all about travelling, hoped simply to explore unfamiliar places with people I had grown to know and love.

Nepal, of course, doesn't take kindly to such hubris. I had to extricate myself from a scam. Then found myself being driven down the Siddartha Highway in the pitch dark after a cyclone (the most terrifying episode in all my years of travelling) and, shortly after that, I walked unnecessarily close to tiger. That was enough to remind me that, however, often I visit, Nepal will alway present me with the unexpected.

Meanwhile Tika kept the show on the road. He laughed at me whenever I was at my most alarmed, or tired, or bewildered.

And now I owe him - and his friends and family. Shobha, his wife, who has always welcomed me into her family, and cooked meals for me on a small stove on her rooftop. Ajay and Upama in Kathmandu - they have a child now, whom I've never met. Buddhi, who led me into the mountains and was so patient with my puffing. Jeevan, who took me to a small village and was helpless with laughter when (I still don't know how this happened) I ended up on the stage at a school prize giving.

I'm not claiming that Nepal is any more or less deserving than any other country. But it is important to me. In just over three weeks I'll be back - and this time I'll focus on what I can do for them. After all, they done more than they can possibly know for me.