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updated 3/27/2014 2:32:17 AM ET 2014-03-27T06:32:17

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal plans to distribute free SIM cards to trekkers visiting remote areas alone, officials said on Thursday, after several foreign hikers were attacked or went missing in recent years.

Home to eight of the world's 14 highest mountains including Mount Everest, Nepal hosts thousands of foreign climbers and trekkers every year. But the killing or disappearance of solo trekkers have raised concerns about the safety of tourists.

"When a trekker is lost, it becomes easy to find out the location by tracking the SIM card," said Sharad Pradhan, a senior Nepal Tourism Board official, told Reuters.

"Trekkers in distress can also call us on some specified numbers for help or rescue."

Mountain climbers and group trekkers are accompanied by local helpers. But thousands who trek alone to remote Himalayan foothills or national parks make emergency rescue or help difficult when they are in distress, authorities said.

Free SIM cards will benefit about 30,000 independent trekkers who go to the remote areas every year. The cards will be handed over to them with their permits.

Nearly 14 percent of 800,000 tourists to Nepal last year came for hiking or climbing. Tourism contributes four percent to the gross domestic product and employs half a million people in the desperately poor country.

Assaults on or disappearances of individual travelers in remote areas have tarnished Nepal's image in Western tourism markets.

The peak climbing and hiking season in Nepal begins in March and continues until May or early June, when the annual monsoon rains make walking along the Himalayas risky.

(Editing by Ron Popeski)

(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2014. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp

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