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Valuing Women as Assets to Community-Based Tourism in Nepal

Mountain Tourism in Nepal

It is hard to top the highest mountains in the world as a tourist attraction: Nepal claims eight of the world's tallest peaks, including Mount Everest (Sagarmatha, Mother of the Universe), the highest of them all at 8848 meters (29,029 feet). Initially, tourism in Nepal evolved out of Western mountaineers' indefatigable drive to reach the top of the world. They first approached Mount Everest through Tibet as Nepal was closed to foreigners until 1950. The only way to reach Everest was via a four week trek through the middle hills of Nepal to the Khumbu (Everest) region, today one of the wealthiest mountain regions of Nepal, thanks largely to trekking and mountaineering tourism.

Traveling by foot for days on end was nothing new to the Nepalis. Traders routinely found ready food and shelter in every village. Farmers with an entrepreneurial knack would erect a small shelter where the wife would serve tea and simple fare, and the husband would catch up on news with the traveler. Thus, the first foreign travelers who roamed Nepal's mountain regions by foot found a well established network of bhattis (simple lodges, now known as tea houses), particularly along major trade and travel routes linked with Tibet. The skilled Thakali women of the upper Kali Gandaki valley (now within the Annapurna Conservation Area Project, ACAP) gained a reputation for their tasty cooking, clean accommodations, and playful banter, adapting quickly to the food and lodging needs of foreign trekkers. Thus the tradition of open hospitality that had served Nepali travelers in the Annapurna region for centuries, and the Khumbu Sherpas' undaunted expertise in the mountains, enabled mountain tourism to evolve into a major industry that today supports some 400 trekking agencies, 85,000 foreigner trekkers, and some 250,000 trekking jobs (positions as guides, cooks, and porters) per year.

Mountain tourism generates local income and jobs, even at 5000 meters where a Sherpa woman feeds 20 cold trekkers from a dung-fed fire and rents out bunk beds for less than a dollar a night. Besides the direct and indirect income generated by mountain tourism (such as lodge and tea house operations; sale of handicrafts; and employment of guides, construction workers, and farmers), non-financial benefits of tourism include: exposure to outside ideas including technology, language, and perspectives; improved awareness and motivation for proper sanitation and waste treatment; opportunities for foreign-sponsored travel and education; pride in culture and self-confidence that comes with interacting with visitors; and in some cases, an improved socio-economic status of women.

But along with the benefits come the costs: environmental impacts such as increased garbage and human waste, overuse of fuelwood for cooking and heating, and the unsustainable harvest of timber for lodges. Socio-economic concerns include inflation, a widening gap between the rich and poor, a significant number of deaths from mountaineering accidents; and the effects of tourism on cultural values and religious traditions in communities where earnings support lodge construction rather than monasteries and rituals that were once the pillar of society.

Over time, mountain tourism in Nepal has evolved to deal with some of these concerns and opportunities. The government requires trekking groups to use alternative cooking fuel inside protected areas, yet porters still use fuelwood. Trekking trails and villages are much cleaner than a decade ago, due to the combined efforts of the government, local NGOs, villagers, and the trekking industry. Organizations like the Trekking Agents Association of Nepal (TAAN) and the Kathmandu Environmental Education Project (KEEP) provide training to trekking staff in conservation practices; KEEP also runs a travelers' information center to educate tourists about responsible trekking.

Community-Based Tourism for Conservation and Development

Today there are a number of NGOs and internationally funded projects that work with communities in trekking regions to manage tourism's negative impacts while promoting local benefits and poverty alleviation. The Mountain Institute (TMI), a small, international NGO based in the Appalachian mountains of eastern United States, is working with communities, NGOs, governments, and private sectors in and around protected areas of the Himalaya to facilitate community-based tourism and participatory resource management.

In 1994, Nepal's Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation requested TMI assist it in addressing tourism management needs of Langtang National Park and the Helambu Buffer Zone. Langtang Ecotourism Project (LEP) was initiated in early 1996 to strengthen the capacities of local communities, Langtang National Park staff and Nepali NGOs to plan and manage community-based tourism that promotes biodiversity and cultural conservation, and provides local benefits. The aim is to help communities improve tourism services, manage the environmental impacts, and plan tourist attractions that keep tourists in the area longer. If local people can earn an income from tourism, they will be financially motivated to conserve the natural and cultural environment.

LEP works with community organizations in nine communities located along the main trekking routes of Langtang-Helambu, helping to strengthen institutional capacities while building awareness and skills in ecotourism. Women have responded particularly well to project activities, taking on a strong role in keeping the area litter-free, improving lodge and cooking standards, reducing fuelwood use in the kitchen, and initiating cultural attractions for tourists. After participating in LEP programs, women understand the relationship of conservation to sustainable tourism and community benefits.

A Woman's Place is on Top

There is a pronounced gender imbalance in Nepal. Women have lower literacy rates (25 percent compared to men's at 55 percent); educational opportunities (girls are often kept home to help with the household and farming chores when families cannot afford the nominal school fees); access to resources, control of assets, and decision-making powers. In the village, girls marry in their early teenage years, and start beating children shortly thereafter. They are relegated to domestic work, and generally do much more work than men, including cooking meals, fetching water, collecting firewood and fodder, cleaning and washing, tending livestock, as well as weeding, planting, harvesting, and processing agricultural products.

The challenges facing mountain women in tourism are similar to issues faced by many women in developing countries. They have a lower socio-economic status (even among the Tibetan Buddhist ethnic groups), a lack of higher education and low literacy levels, an inability to speak English and therefore communicate with tourists, and a lack of self-confidence in dealing with outsiders, particularly men. For many women, the tasks of tending to tourists' needs adds considerably to their daily household duties, especially when husbands and sons are away for extended periods working as trekking porters and guides. Still, some women manage to run a small trekker's lodge to earn a little extra income.

Ethnic groups of Nepal fall generally into peoples of Hindu castes, many of whom populate the lowland areas with cultural ties to India; and people of Tibetan origin and Buddhist religion, many of whom reside at middle to higher elevations and are often grouped into an identity of "mountain peoples." The Tibetan Buddhist culture of these mountain peoples, whose ancestors were migratory herders and traders in Tibet, allows for somewhat more independent women partly out of necessity: women were left in charge of the household while men were away. Women practiced polyandry, marrying several brothers of one family for the practical reasons of not dividing the inheritance among the sons, and given the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the males.

Women's roles in mountain tourism in Nepal are primarily an extension of the home-manager and guest caretaker responsibilities. Women operate lodges and tea shops along the major trekking routes, sometimes with their husbands or fathers, but often alone. As cooks and primary servers, they have the greatest contact with tourists and their trekking guides and porters. They are never idle. Whatever time they have to sit down is spent knitting woolen caps, mittens, and socks, weaving bags, or making handicrafts to sell to tourists. Some mountain women work as porters or pack animal drivers for trekking or mountaineering groups, and a handful have broken into the ranks of trekking guides and even mountaineers.

The lack of gender sensitivity in government tourism development strategies has constrained women from more fully benefitting from opportunities availed by mountain tourism in Nepal. Much lip service is paid to gender issues in development activities, but male-domination among government staff and the socio-economic inhibitions of women perpetuated by society stifle real progress.

Appreciating Women's Strengths in Tourism

The Appreciative Participatory Planning and Action (APPA) approach developed and used by TMI in the LEP and other TMI programs in Sikkim and Tibet appears to help communities see women, their skills, and characteristics as assets for the development of community-based tourism. The APPA approach appreciates and builds upon tourism assets, identifying strengths and resources through a participatory planning process which become the foundation for a collective dream of how community-based tourism can look and function in the future. The dream is turned into reality through the development and implementation of participatory action plans that emphasize self-reliance with minimal intervention from outside. Communities identify what they can do with their own skills and resources, as individuals and institutions, to attain the desired state of community-based tourism: that which conserves the natural resources and cultural attractions and promotes local benefits as incentives for conservation. The action in APPA is an immediate group activity that takes the first step toward attaining the dream together and feeling the power of team work.

One effective input by LEP has been the issuance of small matching community grants. Grants of up to $200 have enabled five communities in Langtang-Helambu region to operate kerosene depots that sell kerosene at affordable but unsubsidized rates, resulting in a reduction of fuelwood use in 50 percent of the trekkers' lodges. A portion of the kerosene sales income goes to the village tourism committee fund to support ecotourism and conservation initiatives. Committees have used the money to plant 17,500 tree seedlings, construct 40 km of trekking trails, erect directional and information signs for tourists, initiate guided village tours, and maintain cultural and religious sites.

Criteria for the selection (by the community) of training participants is based on who needs the training most. For Lodge Management and Cooking training, the community's answer is people working in the kitchen and interacting with tourists, which is largely women. In the course, women learn to take and prepare orders for food, arrange for rooms, and collect payment from tourists. Women also gain a working knowledge of the costs and benefits of tourism; how much fuel they use, how much and what kind of garbage is generated, what is profitable, and who gains. The Lodge Management and Cooking training has been one of the most successful of LEP activities, teaching skills such as cooking and kitchen sanitation, lodge operations, proper garbage separation and disposal, fuel conservation practices, construction of toilets using local materials, basic English conversation for lodge operators, first aid, etc.

Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) tools, such as tourism resource mapping and pairwise(1) ranking of fuel alternatives, are used in all LEP activities to increase understanding about the relationships between conservation and tourism issues, and to equip villagers with planning and monitoring skills. Exercises have been adapted to use pictures and maps instead of words to ensure that illiterate women can take part. Pairwise ranking was used during a cooking training course to compare the benefits and impacts of using wood versus alternative fuels. The women of Langtang village (located at 2800 meters) ranked electricity highest, then kerosene followed by wood, gas, dung and solar. Factors considered in the ranking exercise were: cost (both initial and operating), cleanliness, speed, impact on the forests and wildlife, safety, and smokiness. With this kind of awareness building, village women have been quick to adapt to cooking on kerosene and using fuel-efficient mechanisms including thermoses, menu planning to reduce the number of items offered, timing of meals to reduce fuel use, charging for boiled water and hot showers, etc.

Building on women's strengths in the kitchen, as resource managers, and as keepers of cultural traditions and knowledge helps establish them as assets for community-based tourism and therefore as key stakeholders. Women hold a wealth of knowledge and customs, such as preparation of local foods, wearing traditional ethnic dress, organizing religious functions, producing handicrafts, performing traditional dancing, and speaking and singing in local dialects. This knowledge can be tapped and managed to attract special interest tourists, or to keep the ordinary trekker in the community for a few more days. With a bit of training in enterprise planning and management, their other skills in vegetable cultivation, poultry and dairy production, and weaving can be turned into income generating opportunities that benefit those women in the community who do not run lodges, thereby spreading the economic benefits of tourism.

Mountain women are especially adept at and learn well by networking. Learning from peers has been one of the most effective activities for engaging women in conservation and tourism. Men and women from Langtang-Helambu visited another conservation and development project, ACAP, and learned first hand from other women's groups. Upon return home from the study tour, a women's group formed on their own, with no LEP project input. Within weeks, they had raised several hundred dollars by contracting with lodge operators to clean garbage from the village trails. They began offering revolving loans among the members to help start small enterprises, including shops and improvements to tourist lodges. The women began performing cultural dances for tourists to raise money to restore the centuries old monastery. Their confidence level soared.


The experiences in LEP suggest that women's participation in community-based tourism builds community self-reliance and a gender-appreciative approach to sustainable resource management. The project's approach seeks to build on community strengths and a collective recognition of what works. In the process women become valued assets for community-based tourism. An appreciative participatory framework cannot undo real social prejudice nor government laws, but it helps the community see women as part of the solution, not the problem.


Byers, E. and Sainju, M. (1994). Mountain Ecosystems and Women: Opportunities for Sustainable Development and Conservation. Mountain Research and Development. 14 (3). Pp 213-228

Gurung, D. (1995). Tourism and Gender: Impacts and Implications of Tourism on Nepalese Women. Discussion Paper Series No. MEI 95/3 Mountain Enterprises & Infrastructure, ICIOMD, Kathmandu, Nepal.

Odell, M.J. and Lama, W. B. (1998). Tea House Trekking in Nepal: The Case for Environmentally Friendly Individual Tourism. Sustainable Mountain Tourism Perspectives for the Himalayan Countries. Patricia East, Kurt Luger and Karin Inmann, Eds. Book Faith India/Studien Verlag Austria

Rao, N. (1998). India's Mountain Women Kept in the Background. Mountain Tourism Perspectives for the Himalayan Countries. Patricia East, Kurt Luger and Karin Inmann, Eds. Book Faith India/Studien Verlag Austria.


(1) Pairwise ranking is a participatory tool that allows participants to rank a series of related items (such as types of fuel or local food) by comparing two at a time in pairs and then scoring the number of wins to determine the priority order. With each paired ranking, participants discuss why they choose one over the other, using the criteria they have selected before beginning the exercise; the ranking is simpler if only one or two criteria are used and are clearly understood. Discussion held during each ranking choice brings out useful information and develops awareness about the issues, such as how and why some alternative fuels may be preferable to fuelwood. This tool is also sometimes called Preference Ranking.

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