Nepal took a big step forward in its plans to reopen to climbers and trekkers this week, even as the country continues to struggle with the coronavirus. But with the Nepalese tourism sector losing more than $10 billion rupees ($83 million) per month during the lockdown, the economic impact of staying closed has weighed heavily on just about everyone. With that in mind, the government has decided to press ahead with plans to reopen, although the question remains as to whether or not anyone will come.
Yesterday, the Nepalese Ministry of Culture Tourism and Civil Aviation announced that air travel would resume to and from Nepal beginning August 17. The plan is to start slowly and gradually build up to normal travel, with flights between regions where the COVID-19 virus is more under control taking precedent. Over time, more flights will be added, although restrictions may continue for visitors coming from places where the pandemic is still running rampant, including the U.S. and India. The government’s plan is to slowly allow airlines and aircraft to return in three phases, ramping up gradually over time.
August 17 is also the date that all other tourism activities can resume in Nepal as well. That includes trekking and climbing, with foreign travelers being allowed to book expeditions with both western and local guides. All hiking and mountaineering trips have been shutdown since March, bringing a premature end to the Himalayan climbing season and closing trails that are normally bustling with backpackers. By most accounts, this has kept the spread of the virus out of the villages in the mountains and protected the people living there from the disease. The fear amongst medical experts is that it could be introduced now as visitors return to the region.
While the resumption of normal travel activities in a country like Nepal is encouraging, it is important to point out that Pakistan has also opened its doors for the summer trekking and climbing season, but has seen very few visitors. In fact, there have been no climbing permits issued for the Karakoram at all this year and an exceedingly small number of hikers have come to the country as well. That could be a sign of things to come for Nepal too, which may reopen its borders but find that not many people are willing to travel just yet. While in many countries around the world coronavirus infections have dropped significantly, COVID-19 remains a serious challenge to travelers until a vaccine has been developed.
Despite those challenges however, the Nepal trekking and climbing operators are preparing to get back to business. Most are offering their usual hikes and mountaineering expeditions, even though there is uncertainty over how much demand they will see from visitors. My guess is that there will be small numbers of adventurous travelers who are willing to take the risks and those that do will probably find the trails and villages mostly empty. That could make for a wonderful time in the Himalaya, provided you don’t mind potentially exposing yourself to the virus. Personally, that’s simply not a risk I’m ready to take just yet.