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The path to climate-resilient tourism in Nepal

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DFID is assisting the Government of Nepal to assess the impacts of climate change on the tourism sector and to develop measures to build resilience.

‘Some of the mountains that drew trekkers to Nepal are becoming less and less appealing. The loss of snow cover makes them less scenic and when there is no snow tourists complain. It has also made climbing trails more dangerous. Tourists have wanted to hire me as a guide to climb Pasang peak but I had to refuse. It was too dangerous,’ says Phurba Sherpa, former Chair of the Nepal National Mountain Guides Association, on the effects of climate change on the livelihoods of sherpas.

Phurba is one of the torch-bearers of this ethnic group famous for their mountaineering skills and local knowledge. They are vital to the tourism industry in Nepal, which is endowed with eight of the world’s ten highest peaks, making it a hotspot for climbers, trekkers and adventure-seekers. Tourists rely on their discretion; however, sherpas’ way of life is now under threat from the changing climate.

Phurba speaks of the need for a paradigm shift in the way they work: ‘We can’t continue as mere porters like we have for centuries; we now have to evolve into mentors on the mountains and need to be equipped with sophisticated technology and an understanding of rescue and evacuation operations to meet extreme weather events. This will build trust with tourists and save lives.’

Nepal’s tourism is vulnerable to climate change

Tourism is one of the largest industries in Nepal and contributed 85.2.8 billion rupees ($0.8 billion) to the economy – equivalent to 4% of total gross domestic product (GDP) – in 2017. Over half a million international tourists visited Nepal in 2017, and the sector supported 426,395 jobs. The Government aims to attract 2 million tourists over the next two years. This growing sector is increasingly under direct and indirect threat from climate change, however.

High temperatures, unpredictable rainfall, floods, landslides, snow cover melt and snow line retreat, increases or decreases in river discharge and quality of river discharge all directly affect the trekking and hiking experience. Even cultural resources such as the values, rites, norms or actions of local communities suffer from climate change. For instance, each house in Lo Manthang in the upper Mustang region of Nepal contributes grains to make food and chang (local beer) and prepares a feast for the whole village during local festivals. One of the most important festivals, Tiji, is losing its charm because villages such as Samjhong and Dhe are unable to spare grain for the festival.

The General Secretary of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, Kul Bahadur Gurung, speaks about the gradual emergence of climate change in the consciousness of the private sector. ‘Fifteen years ago, climate change discussions were limited to academia. You cannot ignore it anymore. We used to have snowfall at 3,500 m at Annapurna or Langtang. Nowadays, we go up to 4,000 m and still there is no snow. Now we realise that climate change has a lot to do with it.’

According to the Climate Change Vulnerability Index, Nepal is the fourth most at risk country to climate change impacts. However, the linkage between climate change and tourism was neither well established nor well understood here.

It is only with an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme events that the impact of climate change on the tourism sector has entered the mainstream discourse. One such event was a freak blizzard and avalanche in the Annapurna circuit, triggered by the tail of cyclone Hudhud, which led to 43 deaths in 2014. The local and international media called it Nepal’s worst trekking disaster.  

The beginning of the dialogue

These concerns came to the fore during the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) formulation process in 2015–2017, which aimed to improve the institutional capacity of the government to implement a long-term climate-resilient development plan in Nepal. Earlier in 2010, the government had prepared the National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) to deal with urgent climate impacts; however, this left out the tourism sector. The NAP formulation process identified this as an oversight and included tourism as part of the nine thematic and cross-cutting areas for prioritised adaptation action.

The ACT initiative advocated for this inclusion of tourism as a key thematic area and fostered active collaboration with the private sector. ‘We brought the attention of the government and the private sector to this issue during the NAP process. The stakeholders realised the need to have tourism as an additional sector of focus. Extreme events like Hudhud became the tipping point,’ says Sunil Acharya, ACT Team Leader in Nepal.

Vinod Gautam, Focal Point on Climate Change in the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, echoes its importance: ‘Our tourism industry relies on nature. If we don’t invest in resilience then risks will continue to increase and, eventually, the tourists will stop coming.’

ACT realised there was a need to go beyond the NAP and engaged the private sector to chalk out an operational pathway to make this vital industry more resilient to climate change. Knowledge gaps and shortage of concrete adaptation actions proved a hurdle. Therefore, ACT went to stakeholders with the idea of conducting a rigorous economic impact assessment of climate change on tourism. ‘What’s the impact of climate change in terms of loss to GDP? That’s the question we wanted to answer,’ says Sunil Acharya.

Economic impact assessment and options for resilience

The ACT team and the Government of Nepal’s jointly conducted economic impact assessment of climate change on tourism established that the economic cost of loss and damage in the sector as a result of climate impact was equivalent to an annual average of 2–3% of total GDP between 1971 and 2015. With increasing impacts, this loss and damage will be even more significant.

‘This assessment will help us establish a baseline to make more informed decisions,’ says Vinod Gautam. It has served as a basis for ACT to engage with the main private sector actors working in tourism to define a set of activities they could undertake to reduce the vulnerability of this vital industry to the impacts of climate change. These solutions range from supply chain management, climate risk insurance and corporate social responsibility to legal frameworks and capacity-building.

ACT is in the process of selecting pilot projects on the prioritised activities. These include an advanced early warning system that can reduce the risk of death, injury, property loss and damage. The current warning system provides basic information on temperature, sunrise and sunset. A more sophisticated system that gives actionable weather intelligence and stimulates those at risk to act would build tourist confidence. Another important recommendation is making climate investments part of a business approach to corporate social responsibility, which would contribute to sustainable development by delivering economic, social and environmental benefits for all stakeholders.

A climate action platform is also being conceptualised, whereby all private sector instructions can come together to address issues relating to tourism and climate change. There could be exchange of ideas, best practices and experiences. This platform could also raise financial resources as and when required. Climate-proofing the National Tourism Strategic Plan will guide government, local communities and the tourism industry and its professionals, as well as visitors, on matters related to responsible and sustainable tourism.

Tourism is vital to Nepal’s growth and development, and the private sector will need to play a leadership role in building resilience, as well as reinventing itself to address the issue as they arise. This will require an enabling environment and an operational roadmap for capacity-building, knowledge exchange and resource allocation. This move towards climate-resilient tourism is an important step in helping Phurba and other community members safeguard their livelihood from climate change and lead a life of dignity.

This article was previously published by ACT in On the Frontiers of Climate ChangeFind out more about ACT's work.