Nepal seeks expert advice on tourism

children finding shelter

Landslides were caused both during and after the earthquake and its aftershocks

Tourism operators in earthquake-hit Nepal say they are seeking guidance from international experts on which areas can be declared safe for trekking and mountaineering.

They want to secure an assessment from top geologists because of the increased risks from earthquake-torn mountains.

This type of tourism is a major source of income for Nepal.

Major destinations are still facing landslides, after the quake and its aftershocks left mountains unstable.

Places seen as highly risky are mainly in the Manasalu, Langtang, Rolwaling and Helambu trekking areas in central Nepal. But there are also concerns for the Annapurna and Everest regions, which see the highest numbers of trekkers and mountaineers.

Reputation risk

“Before we announce that the earthquake-hit areas are safe as tourist destinations, we are determined to get an assessment report from international geologists and experts who will be visiting the ground,” said Ramesh Dhamala, president of Trekking Agents’ Association of Nepal.

“Without them first saying which areas no longer have the risk of mountains coming down, we will not be doing this risky business just for an immediate benefit.

“We are also recommending to the government, in writing, that these areas should not be reopened (for trekking and mountaineering) before the team of experts make their assessment public internationally.”

Trekking agents say they are worried that if tourists are allowed to visit the earthquake-hit areas under present circumstances, and if disaster strikes such areas again, the country’s tourism industry will suffer irrecoverably.

Mountaineering operators are similarly worried.

“We too think the same way, and we have joined forces with trekking agents and the government to ascertain a scientific assessment – because it is equally, if not more, risky for mountaineers to be in the region that has been so badly shaken by the earthquake,” says Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of Nepal Mountaineering Association.

But there are some operators who believe business should resume as soon as possible, because not everywhere has been badly hit and that there are some areas with lesser risks.

crushed car and fallen rocks

Roads in Langtang National Park were strewn with boulders by the April earthquake

Nearly 800,000 tourists visited Nepal in 2013, and a similar number in 2012. Around 13% of those visitors were trekkers and mountaineers.

The Annapurna region sees the highest number of trekkers, followed by the Everest region.

The April 25 quake had its epicentre in Gorkha to the west of Kathmandu, but it shook mountains as far away as Everest to the east.

That quake ruinously rattled mountains mainly in the Langtang valley, where entire villages were buried under avalanches and landslides and debris killed nearly 200 people including foreign trekkers.

The main quake zone also shook many mountains in the Annapurna region, where landslides have continued and one of them even blocked a major river on Sunday.

The biggest aftershock – a 7.3 magnitude quake on 12 May – had its epicentre to the northeast of Kathmandu where there are popular trekking regions including the Rolwaling and Helambu.

That tremor caused huge devastation in these areas and there was damage in the Everest region again.

Officials said a small glacial pond near Mount Everest burst its containment on Monday night, causing panic among villagers because they fear the earthquake and aftershocks may have destabilised bigger glacial lakes in the region.

Earthquake analysis

Geologists say the quakes triggered more than 3,000 landslides in the affected areas and the upcoming monsoon could worsen conditions.

“The reason why the mountains remain unstable is that earthquakes cause intense shaking of the landscape, which damages the rock and soils on hillsides,” says Prof Alex Densmore from the Institute of Hazard, Risk and Resilience at Durham University in the UK.

“This means that even hillsides that did not fail during the earthquake are more damaged, and thus more prone to failure, than they were before 25 April.

“In some cases this damage may be visible at the surface in the form of cracks or fractures in the ground, but this is not necessarily the case; the damage may be at depth and not immediately visible.”

Tricky assessment

Prof Jeffrey Kargel, a glaciologist at the University of Arizona who has studied landslides on Nepalese mountains and their impacts on rivers, says an assessment of the situation is absolutely critical.

“We have seen so much activity of the earth following the main shock and the largest aftershock that we have to presume that there is going to be a state of greatly heightened activity during this monsoon, and quite possibly into coming years,” he said.

men walking through ruins

Thousands were left without shelter by the quakes

“It’s very clear that we have to do what’s possible, not just to keep trekkers and climbers safe, but also the people who service the trekkers and climbers and the entire economic structure of these very hard-hit areas.”

But given Nepal’s difficult topography in the Himalayan region, assessing the risks would not be easy.

“It will take quite a bit of work because every valley, every glacier, every mountain is going to be different depending on the circumstances of the glaciers, the moraines and possible fracturing of the rocks,” Prof Kargel said.

International tour operators are waiting and watching as well.

“To rush out and simply say it’s safe to come to Nepal without factual knowledge is a little bit foolhardy, potentially,” said Nicholas Cowlie, Nepal general manager for Intrepid Travel – the largest international provider of trekking tourists to the country.

“At this point, our clients are holding on to their (Nepal) holiday bookings and our major focus is to report back to them and show them that we are ready for business when we know that it is operationally safe.”

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