From the first day of the trek, we felt like unwelcomed guests at a party. Even guides and porters seemed annoyed with Nepali tourists.
Just like Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, Nepali tourism has a ‘Foreign Tourist First’ policy.
A month ago I completed the Annapurna Circuit trek with my cousins and we experienced unfair treatment before we even took our first step. We were originally planning on trekking up to the Everest Base Camp. I tried booking flight tickets, a month before the trek, but it seemed like an almost impossible task. When I told them that all of us were Nepali nationals, and that we would prefer morning flights, they said that only post-noon flights were available. After contacting some people from travel agencies and airlines offices, I learned that Nepali people are never given a seat in early flights. Since these are flights that almost always make it to Lukla (if and when they actually take off), tourists are given first preference. One agent said, “Even if all the seats are vacant, they will not make your booking. They will keep waiting for a tourist.”
My next step was to check their website. I kept the same date of departure and nationality. All the flights were in fact booked. However, when I changed my nationality to Australian, seats magically appeared. As a Nepali, I would have to pay only Rs. 5,000-6,000 for a seat, however, a non-Nepali Sandeep would have to pay almost Rs. 17,000. Any business person would want their planes filled only with non-Nepali Sandeeps. Who cares about ethics when you have the chance to make over 200 percent profit of just one seat. I was prepared to pay the tourist fare if it meant that I could fly to Lukla, however, I learned that any organization related to the tourism industry is not allowed, by law, to charge or even accept more than the Nepali rate (I’m paraphrasing). Essentially, there is no way for Nepali citizens to get fair and equal treatment.
We managed to get tickets on the noon flight which ultimately got cancelled due to bad weather in Lukla. We decided to ditch Everest Base Camp and committed to start on the Annapurna Circuit the very next day.
The trek was a great success. I was continually in awe of the beauty of the Himalayas. I made amazing memories and came out a little more enlightened. However, there were some incidents during the trek that left me emotionally scarred. Those incidents went far beyond simply depriving Nepali citizens equal access to flight tickets. Discrimination of Nepali tourists is embedded in the tourism industry and culture. We are treated as second-class citizens in our own country.
From the very first day of the trek we felt like unwelcomed guests at a party. Even guides and porters seemed annoyed at the number of Nepali tourists. Two days before we arrived at Manang, we called a hotel to book three rooms. They confirmed the booking and we relaxed thinking that we would be comfortable in Manang. Two days later, we arrived at the hotel to find that our booking had been canceled.
“We’re fully booked,” they said.
“Great. But we booked our rooms two days ago and you were not fully booked then. What happened to our rooms?”
They did pretend to be helpful and pointed us in the direction of a hotel where they had booked rooms for us. We went to that hotel and saw that we had to sleep in porter rooms. When I asked the owners of the second hotel what had transpired, they said, “Some tourists came looking for rooms and they canceled your booking and sent you here. I got a call from them only an hour ago asking if we had rooms here”.
As if we hadn’t learned anything from that experience, we decided to be prepared and book rooms in the next village, Shree Kharka. While booking the rooms I heard a lady’s voice say, “If it’s Nepali, tell them no rooms”. They did confirm our booking though. We arrived at Shree Kharka two days later to see history repeat itself. We were dumbfounded. We had no other option but to walk a few more hours to Tilicho Base Camp. Since we were starving, we decided to get lunch at the hotel that canceled our booking. I was against that idea because I did not want to contribute to their earnings. However, I realized that it didn’t matter to them if I stayed or ate there or not. My room and food would go to a tourist who would pay more than I would.
At best, I was a liability to them. We walked three more hours to get to Tilicho Base Camp where we slept on the floor of the dining hall with 70 other people. The situation there (of Nepali people) was akin to a refugee camp. No matter how long it had been since a Nepali person ordered his/her food, tourists were always given preference. When it was time to sleep, the hotel owner first made sure that the tourists were warm and cozy and then attended to Nepali people. The porters and guides kept themselves warm in one corner (with no mattress or blankets) by sticking together while the owner got more blankets for tourists.
The next day we woke up at 3 am and went to Tilicho lake. It was a magical place, almost mystical. For a brief moment, I forgot about all the cruel treatment we faced throughout the trek, and we weren’t even done.
Two days later while walking to Yak Kharka, my cousin, who had just come from the US, said, “It sucks that we are discriminated against in our own country by our own people. I didn’t come halfway across the globe to my own country for this kind of treatment. If and when I take another long break, I’m not trekking in Nepal.” To this, I replied, “Dada, you can always come when it’s offseason. It won’t be this crowded and we won’t be treated like this.” “But Sandeep, why should I give up traveling in season just because I am Nepali? Don’t I have the right to enjoy the beauty of the Himalayas during season?”
Scarred for life
Maybe an hour after this conversation we saw a small tea shop with the sign “Pure Yak Cheese Found Here.” We took a break and sat down for some tea and cheese and crackers. The owner served us our slices of cheese in a plastic bag which we devoured instantly. We ordered 100 grams more and another plastic bag arrived. While we were enjoying our cheese and crackers we saw the owner walk to a table of tourists with a plate of cheese. This steel plate was first layered with lettuce and fancily decorated (in a circular fashion) with slices of “Pure Yak Cheese”. We couldn’t enjoy our cheese and crackers (and tea) anymore.
Three more days of trekking and we were done with one of the most intense experiences in our lives. We crossed Thorang-La Pass, reached Muktinath, stripped down to our knickers and ran through the 108 taps to officially end our trek. Regardless of how beautiful the view was, or how amazing the pictures turned out, this trek left me scarred in ways no word can describe. How can Nepal hope to attract more Nepali tourists when they are treated as second-class citizens in their own country?
The author has a degree in Psychology from Randolph College, Virginia. He now works with Ambe Steels