Nepal is one of the poorest countries on earth. It consistently ranks in the bottom 10% of countries as measured by the Human Development Index. Unemployment or underemployment is very near 50%. The historically weak economic engine and volatile political situation results in very limited opportunities for gainful employment. As with many developing countries the disparity in income distribution is dramatic. The top 10% control 40% of the wealth in Nepal. This is of course concentrated in the urban area of Kathmandu Valley.
One need only look at the numbers of Nepalis (primarily men) leaving the country to find work to understand how difficult employment must be. Each day 1500 people (and many more, undocumented) leave Nepal for work abroad in other countries. There are presently 3.5 million Nepalis working overseas and their remittances account for approximately 30% of Nepal's GDP. Often this is very dangerous work with little protections for the workers. For example, the dramatically high number of deaths amoung Nepali workers in Qatar, building infrastructure for the World Cup 2022 as well as other projects, prompted a report by DLA Piper to overhaul the present system in order to better protect migrant workers in Qatar.
The tourism industry in Nepal offers one area of promise. Tourism is one of the most significant creators of domestic jobs both directly and indirectly, in urban and rural areas. It has contributed substantially to poverty reduction. It is the second largest foreign income earner after remittances. 2013 saw 390 million US dollars in gross foreign exchange, much of it from the Mountaineering and Trekking industry. The Nepal Government collects nearly 4.3 million USD in royalties from climbing groups. In 2013 there were approximately 300 expedition teams that contributed to these numbers.
A large proportion of the tourism dollars coming into Nepal go to the Government and the Trekking Agents who organize and provide logistics for these trips. They in turn provide the work and jobs for those in the areas they serve. For the most part these are mountainous regions of the country, where foreigners want to climb and travel.
The mountainous regions are even more limited in their opportunities for economic development and poverty reduction due to their isolation and rural nature. The tourism industry's labor intensive nature offers a variety of work opportunities in rural areas that otherwise have limited options. It's natural then, that local workers gravitate towards work in this industry despite the clear physical risk involved with climbing expedition work. This affect is most strongly seen in the Everest region.
The 2013 per capita GDP (GNI per capita, atlas method from World Bank) was $730 USD in Nepal. Those who work for trekking and mountaineering expeditions are sure to make more than this, and some can make many times this number. Among the highest paid laborers are the high altitude workers (HAWs) who work above base camp as hired cooks, load carriers, and guides. Those who carry loads on Everest and accompany clients on summit day may make between $2,500 and $6,000 over a two-month period in the pre-monsoon season. On other mountains, in other seasons, these pay rates drop significantly. Many of the high altitude load carriers, most of whom are ethnic Sherpas, are from the Everest region. Along with the influx of tourism, the cost of living increased, making these salaries difficult to compare with less developed mountain regions, where increasingly larger numbers of high altitude workers come from.
Despite these numbers being significantly higher than the per capita GDP there is very little in the way of support if a worker is killed or injured. Through 2012 the insurance policy that was required for a high altitude worker on an expedition by the Ministry of Tourism brought $5,000 USD benefit if the worker perished. That's essentially paying the salary that already would have been earned and nothing more.
Since 2000, forty-five Nepalis have died working on Mt. Everest, with many more perishing on other expedition peaks in the country. Most of these families are left only with the mandatory insurance benefit payment and the support of extended family members to help them survive. If they are working for an outfitter with access to donor money from clients, they may have some further support. But this is not the norm and there is nothing required beyond the inadequate insurance.
While tourism offers great numbers of jobs in Nepal compared with other sectors, the industry suffers from the issues afflicting the country elsewhere: weak institutions, weak economic development, volatile and unstable government agencies with frequent personnel changes based on political party affiliation. Competition and basic marketing differentiation does help influence decisions on the part of companies to support families who lose a member. Many companies help because they feel it is the right thing to do. But, there is no governing body or adequate mandatory coverage by the Ministry of Tourism.
There is no question that Himalayan mountain tourism benefits the development of these regions and increases incomes, access to education, health care delivery, and better living conditions. The large commercial guiding industry has played a significant positive role in this. Mountain-based tourism is one of few options for employment in villages and rural areas, and contributes to keeping communities intact and migration limited. If managed effectively it is also a sustainable industry with limited impact on the environment.
Protection of local workers and their families is an important component in making sure the positive impacts of tourism are not outweighed by the negative impacts. Increasing the safety margin of the high altitude workers by gaining important technical skills and knowledge is essential. There are effective programs in place such as the Khumbu Climbing Center, Nepal Mountaineering Association Training, and Nepal Mountain Guide Association.
There are also needs to be a better safety net for workers' families in the case of accidental death or disabling injury. With your support we will continue to help families in this regard via our programs addressing living expenses, educational scholarships and social support programs.