As with the rest of the world, Nepal has been struggling with the coronavirus since it was declared a global pandemic back in March. Not long after, the country closed its borders to the outside world, shutting off access to the Himalaya just before the start of the lucrative spring climbing and hiking season. That was a massive blow to the economy, causing the travel and tourism sector to shutdown for weeks, closing hotels and teahouses, leaving trails empty, and sending mountain guides home with nothing to do. But now, there is a light at the end of the tunnel at long last, with a plan to slowly return to a more normal state. That includes allowing international flights to begin arriving in Kathmandu and to welcome trekkers and climbers back to the Himalaya.
Internally, the Nepali economy started back up a few weeks back. On September 13, domestic flights returned to operation, businesses started to reopen, and many people emerged from lockdown eager to get back to some semblance of normality. So far, this transition has been relatively seamless, although Worldmeters reports more than 1500 new cases of COVID-19 per day at the moment, along with roughly 10 deaths. Despite the fact that the virus is still active and spreading however, Nepal’s Tourism Ministry is forging ahead with plans to begin welcoming foreign visitors for the first time. Whether or not anyone will actually come remains to be seen.
The first commercial international flights were allowed to resume on September 1, but new arrivals were limited to just 800 per day. That meant there were no more than two or three flights that were allowed in country each day. But starting on October 17, the restrictions will start to lift, allowing more flights to arrive at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan International Airport. The daily number of arriving visitors is expected to expand to 3000 o that date, although all of flights will be closely watched and foreign visitors may be required to quarantine before leaving the city.
This is good news for backpackers and mountaineers hoping to explore the Himalaya this fall. But in addition to packing their hiking boots, sleeping bag, and crampons, they’ll have to bring a few other things with them as well. Most notably, the results of a COVID-19 test administered in the previous 72 hours that proves they are negative for the virus. Additionally, travelers will also need to provide the address of a local hotel that they will quarantine at for seven days after arrival. On the fifth day of that quarantine, they will also undergo another COVID test before they are allowed to depart for the mountains. It is now mandatory that all visitors carry travel insurance worth up to $5000 as well.
While the number of visitors isn’t expected to reach the large numbers that are typical for autumn in the Himalaya, the influx of travelers will bring an infusion of cash to Nepal’s flagging economy. In the spring, the country was forced to shut down just weeks before the arrival of hundreds of alpinists heading to Mt. Everest, which cost the country—including the government— millions of dollars in revenue. Most of those climbers have now rescheduled for the spring of 2021, although a few will take advantage of the quiet trails and base camps that are expected throughout the region in the weeks ahead.
That isn’t to say that there haven’t been a few climbing expeditions that have gotten underway ahead of the official reopening. A few weeks back we learned that a team of climbers from Bahrain would be attempting Manaslu, while an all-Nepali squad is heading to Baruntse. It seems likely that a few other small, likely-independent, climbing teams will try their luck in the mountains this fall too. Just who might be on those teams, and what there objective could be, is unclear however, so for now we’ll just have to wait.
If you are adventurous and aren’t afraid of contracting the coronavirus while in transit, it could be an amazing time to be in Nepal this fall. Not only will the trails and campsites likely be mostly empty, there are few better places to socially distance than in the Himalaya. The problem is, you’ll probably have to spend some serious time aboard an airplane to get there, which includes passing through some semi-busy airports while in transit. If you can avoid contact with any infected travelers while en route, you’ll probably be able to do the same in Kathmandu, the Khumbu Valley, or wherever else you might travel.
That said, if you do feel the need to go, wear a mask, avoid large gatherings, and just be careful.
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