Long known as a trekkers' paradise, Nepal is changing how tourists can enjoy its mountain scenery with a new rule that prohibits solo hiking.
From April 1, independent travellers hoping to explore the peaks of the Himalayan destination will need to hire a licensed guide to accompany them on their adventures.
“This decision has been made for the tourists' benefit," Maniraj Lamichhane, director of Nepal Tourism Board, told API. "While going on solo treks, tourists often get lost and might face insecurities. In order to mitigate that we have come to the decision to put a ban on solo treks. Starting from April 1, guides are mandatory for adventure tourism.”
Certified trekking companies in Nepal have received notification about the rule change, confirmed Tapashya Singh Thakuri from travel operator Spirit of the Himalayas. But other local operators told The National that they have not yet received an official notice about the new rule.
When it does come into force, all independent foreign travellers — including those travelling solo or in groups — will have to book a licensed guide for any form of trekking activities.
Responses to the proposed rule change are varied, with some in the country's adventure tourism industry lamenting the loss of freedom to explore one of the world’s great wildernesses.
Sudeep Kandel, a licensed guide and owner of travel company Himalayan Adventure Labs, believes the rule change is misguided.
“I respectfully disagree with the recent decision by Nepal Tourism Board to mandate guides for all trekkers. While having a guide can enhance the trekking experience and improve safety, it's not always the case,” said Kandel.
“Instead of imposing a blanket rule, why not collectively work on training guides to provide a compelling option for trekkers? Furthermore, if safety is the primary concern, the regulation should apply to all trekkers, including Nepali trekkers, who may be less prepared than foreign tourists.”
Tourism officials said the rule change is “due to increasing safety concerns”. Some social media users have suggested that the rule is being implemented for financial gain as a way to increase employment opportunities for Nepalese guides.
For Rajan Dahal, owner of Global Adventure Trekking, an environmentally conscious outdoor adventure tour operator headquartered in Kathmandu, the decision has its advantages and disadvantages.
“On the one hand, it will enhance the safety of travellers and ensure they have a better understanding of the local culture and customs. On the other hand, it may increase the cost of travel. Ultimately, the effectiveness of the decision will depend on its implementation and how it is received by travellers," Dahal said.
“The decision to exempt Nepali trekkers from the new rule may be due to several factors, including their familiarity with the local terrain and culture, their ability to communicate with locals and the fact that they are not subject to the same travel restrictions as foreigners.”
Solo adventurers often choose to travel alone for many reasons, including having the freedom to choose the location, duration, pace and scope of a trek. With this no longer being an option in Nepal's mountains, some tourists may choose to travel to other destinations.
That's something that Dahal admits may be a problem, but hopes the country can overcome.
“It is possible that some solo travellers may choose to visit other destinations where they are free to explore alone instead of travelling to Nepal. However, Nepal has a unique and diverse culture, landscape, and adventure opportunities that may still attract many travellers, even with the new regulations in place.”
Famed for its Himalayan peaks, Nepal is home to world's highest mountain, Mount Everest, which attracts around 35,000 travellers per year. Foreigners hoping to ascend Chomolungma (the peak's local name) typically do so on organised expeditions, so the new rule is unlikely to have a major impact on tourist numbers on the 8,849-metre-high peak.
It’s Nepal’s other trekking routes that are likely to face the biggest impact from the new rules. Annapurna Base Camp, Ghorepani-Poon Hill and the LangTang Valley have long been popular choices for independent or beginner hikers.
In 2019, more than 50,000 tourists trekked in Nepal without a guide or porter according to data from the Nepal Tourism Board.
To trek independently in Nepal’s wilderness, tourists need an official route permit and a Trekkers Information Management System card. The cost of this permit is 2,000 Nepalese Rupees per person ($15) — which increased from 1,000 per person for those travelling in groups — and travellers will no longer be able to apply for the permit without booking a guide to accompany them.
It’s not yet clear how the Nepal Tourism Board plans to roll out or monitor its new rule.