Manang’s dilemma: pending burden

Despite the apparent gaps and potential for growth in tourism, investing in Manang is next to impossible for outsiders – Nepalis and foreigners alike. ACAP policies disallow construction of any new commercial infrastructure in the region

The people of Manang welcome visitors and, like the rest of Nepal, understand how vital the sector can be for the country’s development. Yet, like others, they also believe they cannot accommodate larger numbers of tourists with the current infrastructure.

Visit Nepal 2020 aims to bring two million tourists, and Manang can be a great destination to a portion of those visitors. Manang has been seeing steady growth in tourism. According to Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) officer-in-charge Babu Lal Tiruwa, the region saw around 27,000 foreign tourists in 2017 alone. That figure does not include domestic tourists and the 15,000 supporting staff (porters, guides) those tourists brought with them during the peak season. Similarly, the infrastructure is slowly but surely developing.

The most significant development has been the ongoing expansion of the road that connects Manang with the highways in the hills. Despite the expansion, the road is still

dangerous. It has been touted as one of the most dangerous roads in the world, and four wheelers are still required to navigate through it.

Nevertheless, the roads are a game changer. Hotelier Binod Gurung, chairman of Tourism Entrepreneurs Association of Manang (TEAM), says, “Years ago, I had to bring all the construction materials for my hotel in three Mi-17 choppers!” The investment he made back then could have been used to buy some real estate in Kathmandu. But he acknowledges that due to the road, the current outlook and the environment for investment are better than ever.

Although progress has been made for new infrastructure development, such as the road, there are other gaps in the region. The airport at Humde, Manang appears to be a ghost airport – flights in and out of the black-topped runway are extremely rare and non-existent, according to the locals. Expanding commercial flights at the airport could significantly increase the scope of tourism in the region and reduce the burden on the sole road network – a potential investment that flight carriers can make.

Similarly, the village and the surrounding region depend on micro-hydropower, which is off-grid. This causes frequent power outages in the winter. Cellular network in the region is weak, and there’s often no signal during the nighttime.

Manang is currently a hotbed for trekkers seeking to complete the famous Annapurna Circuit. Yet the region holds great potential for diversification. TEAM explains how religious tourism and luxury tourism could excel. Milarepa’s Cave in Manang is considered an important pilgrimage site for Buddhists. Similarly, a trek to Tilicho Lake is not just an adventure journey, it also holds religious importance for Hindus. Spreading such information through publicity would help diversify the economic dependence on trekking.

Due to the majestic mountains and the stunning landscape, luxury mountain resorts can be built. The Gangapurna Glacier and lake provides the perfect backdrop. This may help Nepal increase the number of high spending vacationers.

The bigger issue, however, is that the region cannot handle the number of tourists it receives during the peak trekking season between September and November. The place can experience 10-12 days without enough rooms and beds. The spike in domestic tourism has worsened the situation. Gurung explains the consequences, “Nepali tourists complain that they are not provided with rooms while foreigners are given priority.

But what they don’t realise is that the foreigners book the rooms ahead of time and don’t come during the night asking for rooms.” The growth in hotels has been sluggish at most. According to him, each year the village sees only one or two new hotels.

The local entrepreneurs construct hotels according to the current demand, but we need to realise that this approach would not be sustainable when Nepal actually sees two million visitors in 2020. This number is more than double the 2017 tourist influx that stood at about 940,000.

Despite the apparent gaps and potential for growth in tourism, investing in Manang is next to impossible for outsiders – Nepali and foreigners alike. ACAP policies disallow construction of any new commercial infrastructure in the region.

Furthermore, the local system and practices prohibit anyone from outside the village to own land or property there. Even people from Braka, which is about 10 minutes’ walk from Manang village, are not allowed to own property in the neighbouring village and vice-versa. Local investment alone is not enough to build the tourism infrastructure.

There are a few dream projects that could have significant impact on the region. One of them is a tunnel between Pokhara and Manang. Surprisingly, the two places are only 22 kilometres apart (geographically).

Additionally, in the short-term, new trekking routes are being identified, and off-season activities and festivals can be created to smoothen the seasonal curve of tourists.

With the looming growth of tourists and the hefty goals of Visit Nepal 2020, Manang needs a rethink of its policies. The region must learn to balance its priorities and come up with sustainable solutions that create a win-win scenario for themselves.