This is a guest post from Jenny Adhikari, a tourism professional based in Nepal.
As someone who works in the tourism industry, and who tries hard to ensure that the company I help to run is responsible and sustainable, I am often dismayed when I see travellers engaging in actions that can cause actual harm. Most of the time, the damage done is entirely unintended. Here I offer some tips for those wishing to travel ethically in a country I know and love well, Nepal.
General Advice on Ethical Travel in Nepal
- Stay in locally-owned places. Do some research before booking a hotel to try to ensure that your money is going into the local economy. Even better: go for homestays! The money goes directly to the family and you will get an insight into the Nepali way of life. If you can, I recommend homestays run by indigenous or Dalit communities, whom are traditionally marginalised.
- Take the road less travelled. Places like the Annapurna region, Chitwan National Park and Everest Base Camp already have as much tourism as they can take and are in danger of being damaged by “overtourism”. But there are countless other beautiful places in Nepal well worth a visit. Going to different places will spread your tourist dollars more widely, and the people will offer you a warm welcome for showing interest in their area.
- Use local guides and porters. This is important especially when trekking, so you have someone to help you if things go wrong. It also provides vital income for people from remote places. Try to employ females if possible, as the industry is still very male-dominated. Going through a company will offer a little more security – it’s no guarantee but at least you have someone to complain to in case their are problems.
- Research your travel agency. A good company will be transparent with their policies. Ask questions such as: Are they paying proper salaries to their staff? What are the working conditions like? Do the staff have the right equipment? Is the agency working against social injustice, by being members of ECPAT’s The Code or similar? What is the weight limit for porters to carry? (The maximum weight for a porter to carry in Nepal is 30 kg on low altitude treks, according to International Porters Protection Group. Never agree to your porter carrying more than that! Check out IPPG’s 5 guidelines.)
- Know that volunteering on a tourist visa is illegal. Although this is widely practiced, in theory both paid and unpaid work on a tourist visa is punishable.
- You have to learn before you can help. If you are serious about wanting to engage with aid and development work in Nepal, you should start by coming as an observer instead of diving in. Stay in homestays and learn to understand the culture, so that you can more easily understand what the needs are and if/how you can contribute. If you have specialised skills you will soon find a way to utilise them.
- Bring a refillable bottle with a water filter. Plastic waste is a huge problem not just in Nepal but globally, so let’s avoid contributing to it. Also bring a plastic bag to pack and carry your garbage until you find a good place to throw it out.
- Don’t throw away old trekking clothes. Unless they are completely destroyed, your trek staff will be able to find a good home for secondhand gear.
- Collect dead firewood. Nepal has recently doubled its forested area but deforestation is still a problem. Help to collect dead firewood when trekking so that the people don’t have to cut down trees to keep you warm and full.
- Ask before taking photos. Nepal is a super photogenic country, but remember that you are taking photos of people’s day-to-day reality. If people are in your shot, ask for consent. Also make an effort to understand what you are photographing before you take the photo.
- Avoid elephant riding. Elephants are wild animals and the domestication process is grim and painful for the elephant. Jeep safaris or walking tours are just as good.
- Think before giving money to people begging. Instead donate to registered NGOs or hospitals who know how to use your donation effectively. Some begging is part of an organized crime ring, and offering money perpetuates the problem.
- Report child exploitation. If you see anything suspicious contact ECPAT or CWIN.
- Buy locally-produced handicrafts. There are high-quality beautifully-made products available in Nepal made by local artisans. There are also fair trade organizations that work to empower craft producers and sell their wares. You can also get lessons with local artisans to learn their skill. As well as supporting the economy you also show the locals how valuable you think their handicraft skills are, in these days of plastic and use-and-throw.
- Eat at restaurants that support NGOs. The food is delicious and the profit goes towards social causes.
Why to Avoid Volunteering with Vulnerable Children
- It fuels child trafficking. Children are a lucrative trade in Nepal, as the demand for “orphan tourism” is bigger than the supply of actual orphans. Only 10-20% of the children living in orphanages have no living parents. Children who could stay with their families in their villages are brought to tourist hotspots, where the chance of finding sponsors and donors is biggest. The orphanage owners collect donations from naïve and goodhearted people but the amount that reaches the children is variable. Most ends up in the pockets of the business-minded owners.
- It traumatises children. These are children who have already been separated from their parents. Volunteers give the children love and care for a short time, but when they leave the children’s trauma is exacerbated.
- It leaves children wide open to abuse. As orphanage owners wants the volunteers’ money they will not demand a police background report. Therefore child sex tourism is a huge problem in orphanages in Asia.
- You would not be qualified to do it at home. In developed countries people are not allowed to work with vulnerable children without significant levels of training. Why would it be allowed in developing countries? Sometimes volunteers are offered opportunities they are not qualified for, on the basis of their skin colour alone. This is a colonial mentality – there are usually local people with the language, skills and education to do a better job.
- It cements the image of “white saviour.” Usually volunteers come to do the “fun activities” like playing, while the local staff are left to the “boring” work like cooking, cleaning and disciplining. This can result in children believing that foreigners are kinder, better or more fun than locals, idolising foreign culture instead of valuing their own.
Jenny Adhikari has been living in Nepal since 2007. She is together with her husband running the Kathmandu-based trekking and travel company Beyond Borders Ethical Adventures. They work actively with promoting sustainable and ethical tourism in Nepal. The main photo shows Jenny out trekking in rural Nepal.