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Nepal, which relies heavily on income from tourism at the world's highest peaks, will be struggling to keep an economic foothold if Sherpa guides decide to boycott this year’s climbing season, tour operators and mountaineering experts say.
Many of the Sherpas in the Himalayas say they will down their ice axes and crampons, after a deadly avalanche last week killed at least 13 of the local guides who help foreign adventurers climb Mount Everest and other peaks on the Rooftop of the World.
“If you consider the industry as everything from trekking to climbing, the entire package is probably the biggest industry in Nepal,” said Phil Powers, executive director of the American Alpine Club, a climbing advocacy group based in Golden, Colo.
Indeed, last year the tourism sector earned revenues of $370 million - nearly 3 percent of Nepal's gross domestic product. Of that, trekking and mountaineering drew 105,000 visitors to Nepal in 2012, according to the Ministry of Culture, Tourism & Civil Aviation in Kathmandu. That represents roughly one-in-seven of the 803,000 visitors to the tiny country that year and a 21.7-percent increase over the year before.
Climbers, of course, represent a small fraction of the total — 2,216 nationwide in 2012, 353 at Everest — but the economic impact of their visits belies their smaller numbers. In 2012, Everest climbers paid the government 269 million Nepalese rupees in fees ($3.3 million, 78 percent of the total) and untold millions more for local hotels and other services during their extended visits.
While it’s impossible to calculate the dollar value of the total revenue lost to the local economy, Powers notes that an experienced Sherpa can make $2,000–$10,000 during the spring climbing season, money which often has ongoing, ancillary effects.
“They’re relatively good-paying jobs compared to the local economy,” said Gordon Janow, director of programs for Alpine Ascents International in Seattle. “With earnings from Everest, Sherpas have gone on to open restaurants and lodges. Those non-climbing endeavors can help provide additional income for their villages.”
While the long-term effects of a boycott won’t be known for months or years, the current Everest climbing season is essentially on hold. According to Agence France-Presse, the Nepalese government has issued Everest permits to 734 people, including both guides and clients, for 32 expeditions this season.
Many of those expeditions remain at Everest Base Camp, waiting to see how the situation progresses. Others, including Alpine Ascents, which is mourning the loss of five Sherpa team members, have decided instead to cancel their scheduled climbs.
How that will affect paying clients is unclear. With many paying $30,000 to $60,000 — and in some cases up to $90,000 — to climb Everest, there will be discussions about whether or not there will any sort of reimbursement.
“I don’t know anyone who would argue the point that if the Sherpas want to go home after what happened, for goodness’ sake, let’s all just go home.”
“It’s not unprecedented that a trip ends and no refunds are given because [the cause] was out of our control,” said Janow. “But we’ll also try to look and see if we can mitigate that. It could be refunds, credit toward a future trip or through trip-cancellation insurance. We’re not looking to walk away from them.”
For Dave Mauro, a financial planner from Bellingham, Wash., who reached the summit of Everest last year, the issue comes to down to one of perspective and the kind of person who signs up to climb in the first place.
“I know the types of people who go on these expeditions and I can’t imagine anyone putting up a fuss and saying, ‘I paid all this money and you’re canceling the climb?’ They’re not that type of people,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who would argue the point that if the Sherpas want to go home after what happened, for goodness’ sake, let’s all just go home.”