Nepal for tourists – and a little bit of the other sort of Nepal
Long before I did my first trip to Nepal earlier this year, I had dreamed about going there. The biggest attraction were the mountains – both for me and for hundreds of thousands of other tourists every year. The Himalayas stretch though the whole country from east to west. Eight out of ten of the highest peaks on Earth are located in Nepal. Tourism is the lifeblood of Nepal, and it brings in more money than any other industry. Most of the tourists gather in the same areas: Thamel quarters in Kathmandu, and trekking routes and their starting points such as the city of Pokhara.
I spent six weeks in Nepal, mostly in Kathmandu to organize the production of Fly My Damsel lingerie and teaching the factory workers how to make bras. I travelled with a Finnish friend who had been to Nepal twice before. She has Nepali friends and knows how to get around. With her I got to see both the touristy Nepal including an eight-day mountain trek and the tourist hub of Pokhara, and some glimpses of the other kind of Nepal that many tourists don't see.
We lived in the house of my friend's Nepali friends. Our Nepali ”home” was outside the tourist quarters of Thamel, and it always felt a little weird to visit the tourist areas. As tourist areas probably everywhere, almost all the services were for foreigners. The restaurants had interiors and menus designed for Western tastes. In other parts of the city we could walk freely, but in Thamel there were constant calls from people selling their stuff, or offering riksha rides, hostels, or tourist guides. The shops sold completely different stuff than in any other part of the city. For example the hippie-style ”Nepalese” clothes sold in tourist areas were not the same ”Nepalese” clothes that the locals would wear. And it's not just these that the outsiders see differently. Capital cities even outside the actual tourist quarters tend to be somewhat different worlds compared to the rest of the country; shabby suburbs and countryside is mostly seen through a bus window; and comforts such as flushing toilets and wifi are even appearing along the trekking routes up on the mountains. Especially the tourist quarters of Pokhara looked like they were a part of some other country. Well-paved and clean streets with hotels, restaurants and shops side by side, exotic but still Western interiors and English signs, and Western music in the bars, it all felt a little unreal. Just a few kilometres away it might be a whole different Nepal.
Even outside the most crowded tourist areas you don't necessarily see what lies behind the surface, even if you try to look. On our way to Pokhara we visited a small town of Besisahar, the starting point of the Annapurna Circuit trek. There were hotels but no specific tourist area, so I thought it was quite an ordinary small Nepalese town. To my eyes it looked quite affluent. Big and neat houses, well-dressed people – is this really one of the poorest countries in the world? Do the fields of the surrounding valley and the bypassing trekkers really bring in enough money to spread well-being to so many people? However, we met an Indian doctor who had worked in a local hospital for ten years, and she told us that most of the wealth that we see comes from abroad. Poor families who live in remote mountain villages move to town to get their children to school. As there is no work for the parents, usually the father goes to work abroad to provide for his wife and children.
Every year, more than half a million Nepalis get a work permit to some foreign country. This means that about 1400 people leave Nepal every day to work for example in Qatar, United Arab Emirates or Malaysia. Usually the Nepali workers end up in low-paid jobs such as construction workers, housekeepers or waiters, but still the money they send home is about 25% of the whole GDP of Nepal. It has even been said that the migrant workers are one of Nepal's most valuable exports. The effects are not always good for Nepal. As many Nepalis rather work abroad because of better wages and working conditions, there is actually shortage of workers in some industries. Indian and Bangladeshi migrants are called in to fulfill that need. For example repairing the damages of the 2015 earthquake goes on very slowly because there are not enough workers available for the job.
The effects of migration to Nepali families living separately in different countries is still another story. We flew to Kathmandu via Abu Dhabi, and at the airport we met a young Nepali woman who told us her story. She had escaped an arranged marriage to India when she was 17. Later she married a Nepali man in India and had a baby. Her husband had left his family, however, and she had left her then one-year old daughter with her mother-in-law and moved to work in Dubai to provide for herself and her child. She was now on her way to meet her daughter for the first time in three years, and she was afraid that the girl would not accept her, even though they had seen each other often via Skype. She hoped that one day she could bring her child with her to Dubai. Returning back to Nepal would hardly be an option after such a long time abroad.
How about tourism and all the cash that it brings in? The most of the money will stay in those few places where most of the touristis go. It also looked like a lot of that money is invested for serving the needs of tourists rather than increasing the well-being of local people. There are two tourism seasons in Nepal, four months alltogether in autumn and spring. During those four months the whole industry must earn enough for the whole year. Tourism is also an insecure industry: the amount of tourists decreased radically after the earthquake in 2015. As the tourists and their money stay in certain areas, it increases the income inequality within the country. The standard of living of the well-off middle class of Kathmandu – such as our hosts – is something that the poorest can't probably even dream of.
The vast majority of Nepalis live on agriculture, most of them cultivate fields smaller than one hectare. Some years the yields are not enough even for living, let alone for saving money. This year has been exceptionally bad for farmers, because of heavy monsoon rains and floods which have destroyed crops in many areas. Even without this kind of catastrophes poverty rates are the highest in the countryside, especially in Western Nepal, literally off the beaten track. The situation of women is especially bad in poor areas. It takes a lot of changes to spread well-being to these areas: accesible education, jobs with living wages, and possibilities for the most vulnerable groups to affect their own lives. The makers of Fly My Damsel lingerie live in Kathmandu, but most of them come from the poor areas of Western Nepal. As they become empowered, they can themselves become the ones to empower others as well. This is what Fair Trade is about: not just paying living wages but affecting a wider social change among those people, who need it the most.