Nepal: Tourism sector workers lose livelihoods

In Nepal, the last tourists are leaving. Their guides stay behind. How are workers in the tourism sector coping with the COVID-19 crisis?

Travel and tourism are central pillars of the Nepali economy. The government had launched a promotional campaign to develop the sector further: Visit Nepal 2020. In early March, the campaign was cancelled. Nepal’s tourism sector had generated nearly 241 billion rupees in revenue in 2018 (about $2 billion), which contributed 7.9 percent of GDP. At that time, the sector supported more than 1 million jobs directly and indirectly, and the numbers were expected to grow in 2020. Now, many hotels, resorts, airlines and travel and trekking companies have been forced to shut down. 

Workers in the tourism sector are left with nothing

Suman Prasad Parajuli, President of the Union of Trekking, Travel, Rafting, Airlines, Culture, Archaeologies, Courier and Cargo Workers (UNITRAV), is sounding the alarm bell:“There are all together around 100,000 people working in the trekking sector who are expected to lose their jobs. Around 70,000 trekking porters, 22,000 licensed trekking guides and 4,000 mountain trekking guides as well as many cooks and cleaners are going to be unemployed. So are 5,000 tour guides, 3,500 local guides [and]10,000 transport [and] rafting guides and outsourced airline jobs.”

After international travel came to a grinding halt in the past few weeks, there are still thousands of tourists in the country. Some governments have started to bring their stranded citizens home. Some of them are still stuck in famous tourist destinations, like the lakeside city of Pokhara, located close to the Annapurna range, one of the most popular regions for trekking. 

You earn, you eat

As the last tourists leave, their guides and porters stay behind. “Nepal is one of the most famous and safe destinations for mountain and mountaineering activities, such as trekking and hiking. There are also many other cultural sights to see, but the European and Asian travellers mostly come for trekking. There are more than 1,000 trekking guides and porters who are jobless now in Pokhara due to the lockdown,” says Bijay KC, President of UNITRAV Pokhara. 

Most of them have little protection and often very limited savings. “They work on daily wagesyou earn, you eat,” says Dipesh Prasad Thapaliya, tour guide and Secretary at the Organization Department of UNITRAV. 

Workers need support to sustain their livelihoods

With the country under lockdown, people are only allowed to go out for grocery shopping. The country’s middle classmostly living in their family-owned housescan probably cope with these challenges for a while. Most of them had been stocking up and preparing for a shutdown in the past weeks. Many Nepalis still remember the earthquakes of 2015 and the following hardships all too well. But for daily wage labourers, the times are already harsh. How long can they hold out with little to no savings and without meaningful government support? What are the consequences? 

UNITRAV’s Dipesh Prasad Thapaliya fears the worst. “There are thousands of workers across the country who run their life through daily wages. It is hard for them to survive, especially in the city areas where they are now stranded because of the lockdown. They are not even able to return to their villages. This economic crisis might bring physical as well as mental problems for them, which might be even more dangerous than the coronavirus.”

The overall impact on the Nepali economy is hard to predict, but some immediate effects of the crisis are already felt. Vegetable prices doubled in the past week, while the prices of other essential food items went up by 1020 percent. Propane gas is hard to come by. Nepal is heavily reliant on imported goods, most of them coming from India. Nepal’s huge trade deficit has been largely financed with workers’ remittances from abroad, which amount to about 30 percent of GDP.

The tourism sector might not recover anytime soon. Meanwhile, people’s livelihoods need to be sustained. But for the workers in the Nepali tourism industry, there is no quick fix in sight.


Photo: flickr.com/photos/gavin_yeates/15376584860/in/photostream/ (CC BY 2.0) creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Jonathan Menge is the Director of the FES Office in Nepal and coordinates the work on gender justice in Asia.

Samira Paudel is a Project Coordinator at FES Nepal.

The views expressed in this blog series are not necessarily those of FES.

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