Since Nepal ranks among the poorest countries in the world, tourism is a vital economic lifeline. Comprising about 4 percent of the country's gross national product, the industry pulls in around half a billion dollars annually [source: CIA World Factbook]. Although the country has a rich culture and religious tradition, the best-paying and longest-staying tourists travel there for the rock star of the Himalayan mountains -- Mount Everest.
Although only slightly larger than the state of Arkansas [source: CIA World Factbook], the Himalayas that curve across the length of Nepal are home to eight of the 14 tallest mountains on the globe. The government takes advantage of this fact because when it comes to Everest -- or Sagarmatha in the native tongue -- people are willing to shell out serious dough.
What do these dollars mean for Nepal? Steady income. Mount Everest climbers have been a dependable money source, travelling to the country despite the decade-long Maoist uprising of mostly rural farmers who followed an Asian strand of Marxism, which came to a cease-fire in 2007. In climbing season alone from March to May, the population of the Khumbu region at the base of Mount Everest soars from around 40,000 to 700,000 [source: McDougall].
But thousands of those seasonal residents are Nepalese workers from other areas who migrate in for tourism-related employment. In fact, locals have decried recent calls for Mount Everest to be restricted due to environmental damage because so many rely on tourism to provide a majority of their annual income. For example, sherpas, or mountain guides, in particular can make upwards of $2,000 per expedition, far exceeding the average Nepalese annual income.
Just how much are people paying for a glimpse or a hike up Mount Everest? Go to the next page for glimpse at the cost to visit the roof of the world.
Everest's Economic Benefits
The easiest way to get a grip on how much money Nepal takes in from tourism is to take a close look at what the Everest tourist spends. You might be surprised how quickly the numbers climb.
If you're one of the 25,000 annual Everest tourists, getting into Nepal for more than a three-day stay will only run you $30 [source: Nepal Tourism Board]. But that's just the beginning of the tab. If you want to climb one of the major Himalayan mountains, you need a government-issued climbing permit. Although you can hike more than a hundred of the smaller peaks for free, who wants to play in the sandbox when the beach is next door?
Mountains taller than 21,300 feet (6,501 meters) are premium property. That base height costs $1,000 and increases $500 for every 1,640 feet (500 meters). Since Mount Everest stands at a staggering 29,029 feet (8,848 meters), the permit will run around $3350.
Now that you've got your permit, you're ready to start climbing, right? Not quite. If you want to take the most common route to the top of Everest, you'll owe the Nepal government a $25,000 royalty fee for yourself or up to $70,000 for a seven-person expedition crew [source: Nepal Mountain News].
Can't afford it? Wait until the off-season. To increase Everest tourism during the colder months of the year, the Nepalese government announced in 2007 that it was trying to cut royalty fees for people interested in climbing Everest during fall and winter. If the proposed plan goes into effect, a September through November climb will be 50 percent off the regular price and one from December to February will be 75 percent lower. If you're lured into the sales price, Nepal winds up raking in off-season tourism money.
Once you get to the Khumbu region, there are other expenses as well, such as lodging, food and any additional supplies that aren't covered in your expedition fees. In addition to trekking businesses, more than 300 hotels and lodges have sprung up from the tourism, many of which are owned by the local Sherpa people [source: Reid and Kendrick]. Some people turn their homes into tea houses, or overnight lodging, for tourists who want a more "authentic" Himalayan experience. Hundreds of Nepalese men from other areas swarm into Khumbu as well, hoping to get work as porters on expeditions, hauling trekking equipment up Everest slopes on their backs. Even the high-altitude Buddhist monasteries draw income from passing tourists.
However, tourism carries its own price as well in the form of environmental destruction. Read on to learn about the environmental repercussions of Mount Everest tourism.
Everest and the Environment
The Mount Everest rush started after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made it to the top in 1953. Before that, Khumbu's environmental state was far healthier. But with thousands of pairs of feet pounding its footpaths for decades, many believe that Sagarmatha needs a rest.
Global climate change alone has affected Everest's geography, as some of its glaciers have retreated as much as three miles (4.8 km) in the past 20 years [source: McDougall]. If the glaciers continue to recede, it could endanger the local Sherpas who have already experienced flooding from the melting ice. For more detailed information about this, read Is global warming destroying Mount Everest?.
Human activity is the source for the most visible damage being done to the area. Although Khumbu is protected as the Sagarmatha National Park, challenges remain for curbing waste left behind on the trials, especially disposable water bottles and food cans. Literally tons of trash has been cleared from the Everest Base Camp, but groups such as Kathmandu Environmental Education Project remain hard at work teaching climbers about low-impact trekking.
While trash remains problematic, energy sources for feeding and housing thousands of tourists each year are growing scarce. When Sherpas first settled in the Khumbu valley in the 1500s, the forests were lush with plant life. Today, the tree line continues to descend to lower altitudes, as firewood is burned for heating, cooking and hot showers. Environmental groups have urged villagers, business owners and climbers to use kerosene instead of firewood, but the conversion is a slow process. The rate that tourists consume energy is also far higher than Sherpas since they are more accustomed to it in their more industrialized nations.
Although the late Edmund Hillary and others have urged the Nepalese government to ban Everest access for a while to allow for cleanup and more reforestation efforts, there are no signs of government compliance. In fact, the Nepal tourism board furiously refuted an international news story that Nepal was shutting off base camp access for 10 days during the spring of 2008 to allow for a torch run for the 2009 Summer Olympics in Beijing. And the plan for offering lowered rates during the off-season indicates its determination to not only keep the mountain open to the public but actually attract more tourists.
As you can see, Mount Everest tourism has created a difficult puzzle for Nepal. While it's a reliable source of income for some of the poorest people in the world, its very success could also be paving a path to its destruction. For more information about Mount Everest and Nepal, go to the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- CBC News Online. "In Depth: Mount Everest." May 9, 2006. (March 21, 2008)http://www.cbc.ca/news/background/mount_everest/
- Central Intelligence Agency. "Nepal." The World Factbook. Updated March 6, 2008. (March 20, 2008)https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/np.html#Geo
- Davies, Elizabeth. "Mount Everest's appeal grows despite violent unrest in Nepal." The Independent. April 29, 2005. (March 20, 2008)http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_20050429/ai_n14605253
- Jones, Finn-Olaf. "Tourism Stripping Everest's Forests Bare." National Geographic Traveler. Updated Aug. 29, 2003. (March 20, 2008)http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/08/0829_030829_travelereverest.html
- MacDonald, Mia. "The roof of the world: tourism in Nepal strikes a delicate balance." E: The Environmental Magazine. March - April, 2004. (March 20, 2008)http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1594/is_2_15/ai_114327247
- McDougall, Dan. "Should Everest be Closed?" The Observer. Oct. 8, 2006. (March 20, 2008)http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2006/oct/08/conservation.environment
- Nepal Mountain News. "Royalty Fees of Various Peaks of Nepal." (March 20, 2008)http://www.nepalmountainnews.com/royalty_fees.php
- Nepal Tourism Board. "General Information." (March 20, 2008)http://www.welcomenepal.com/brand/travel_general.asp
- Reid, T.R. and Kendrick, Robb. "The Sherpas." National Geographic. May 2003. (March 17, 2008)
- Rosen, Elizabeth. "Somalis Don't Climb Mountains: The Commercialization of Mount Everest." The Journal of Popular Culture. Vol. 40, No. 1, 2007. (March 17, 2008)