Community tourism for the people: Annapurna Community Eco-lodges
I was a bit apprehensive. All year we’d been working to develop a sustainable community-led tourism. Not only for the locals, but managed by the local village people. And in an eco-friendly way. This was the first time we were taking a commercial group on the 8-day trek to Nagi and Mohare Hill (3,300m). It would give me a chance to see what progress had been made constructing some of the as yet unfinished community lodges, but more important, would give me a chance to test the water with paying guests.
Our first day was spent trekking up through orange groves. Everywhere, oranges were there for eating. Paying a few rupees for an orange, we gorged ourselves on the sweet fruit as we climbed to Banskharka. Here we were accommodated in family homes, as plans for a lodge are still at early stages. Other than a short hike to the toilet at the end of the garden (care was needed not to bang your head on the oranges hanging from low branches along the way), the accommodation was simple but clean and all that was needed for a good night. The clients were enchanted by the charming and attractive village, getting a warm welcome from the school children and visiting the little healthpost.
Reluctantly moving on from this delightful village in the morning, we climbed on up through forest, to a small village where we stopped for lunch. Views in both directions along the valley, we could see Nagi, our destination in the distance. Here we had to wait a while, as the message had been slow to get to the village that we were coming. Although communications everywhere else is very good, this little village falls in a shadow, and telephone reception is patchy, with no internet access to connect them. The wait was more than worth it, with a delicious meal of dal bhat, made from locally grown produce.
A gentle walk contouring round to Nagi brought us to the hub of the project. Here, back in January, Mahabir Pun had invited me and Megh Ale, owner of Borderlandsgroup. He had asked us to advise him on how we could help him with a community tourism project that would ensure the maximum benefit for the local villagers.
At the time, I had stressed the necessity to not only have the community drive the project, but that there also needed to a very strong environmental side to it too. Not just ‘community lodges’ but ‘community eco-lodges’.
When one of the trekkers rather skeptically asked me what I meant by ‘eco’ – as the term does tend to get over-used and is sometimes seen as meaningless, I explained what I understood it to mean here.
Not only are the local people building the lodges themselves from local materials (their contribution is 40% of the total cost), but they’re getting the chance for jobs to run the lodges, cook and work as porters and eventually work as local guides. My greatest hope is that enough tourism will help stem the tide of people leaving the villages, making it worthwhile for them to stay.
Not only is the emphasis on local people getting the benefit from tourism directly, but also it needs to be run in an eco-friendly way. So this means making sure there isn’t litter along the paths, managing the waste from the lodges and dining rooms, using fuel and resources like water responsibly. It is aimed to switch to using gas in the near future and where there’s no mains electricity, solar panels are used for lighting. One of the trekkers suggested how the school children can be a great driving force in helping to keep their village clean. Its a lot to do with education, and so far, tourism is a new concept for most of the people here. Though its in sight of the same mountains that attract so many tourists on the main routes like the Annapurna Circuit and Sanctuary, very few come to these villages. Up till now, there hasn’t really been much in the way of infrastructure either.
All along the way, I was careful to discuss with members of the village committees the need to manage expectations carefully. Tourism is not the answer to all economic problems. There are a lot of negative aspects of tourism too, that will need to be very carefully guarded against. This sort of trek is ideal for small groups of eight to ten people. Although the lodges can house up to twenty, care will be needed to make sure that there should be some sort of reservation system, passing the message to the lodges when a group is to be expected. In partnership with Mahabir, NTH can assist with the communication process. Of course it won’t be possible to force anyone to notice us, but then there might be the risk that the lodges are already full and unless the group has tents, in some places, this could be quite tricky to get around.
I was pleased by the work being done – the clock is ticking, as the UNDP, that is funding 60% of the costs will end on the 30 December. Everywhere we went; villagers were hard at work, laying bricks, sawing wood and getting the community lodges and dining rooms finished.
Feedback from the trekkers was excellent too. One who’d trekked quite extensively in the Everest area recently claimed it was the very best walking she’d done in Nepal. Another old hand at trekking in Nepal was very impressed and agreed it was one of the best. Though not going so high (3,300m), the top of Mohare Hill offers the most spectacular views of the Annapurnas and neighboring mountains. One of the trekkers who had been to Poon Hill (which we could look down on) agreed that the views were far better.
For those who have longer and fancy a bit more challenge, a ten-day trek includes the option from Khopra to climb to 4,600m on a day hike. Other than that, in general the walking is not too strenuous, and would suit anyone with some level of fitness.
Comments like “Better than Poon Hill” and “The best trek” were music to my ears, but more important, seeing the enthusiasm and welcome from the villagers, the delight in everyone’s faces at the interactions between local people and trekkers, and the knowledge that the village people were getting a slice of the action, benefiting directly from tourism. These were the things that make these treks so unique.
Anyone interested in going on one of these treks, can contact Vimal Thapa Tel: +977 1 4700894 or Email: [email protected]