Darrell Wade, 54, is on a mission to bring tourism back to Nepal. The chief executive and a founder of Intrepid Travel recently spent a week in the country – his 14th visit – and saw firsthand how far it has come in recovering from the devastating earthquakes in April.
While Nepal represents a small portion of Intrepid Travel’s business, the company, which is headquartered in Melbourne, Australia, is one of the largest tour operators in Nepal. The safety of his staff and clients was Mr. Wade’s primary concern, so Intrepid worked with the Nepalese government and disaster response engineers from Miyamoto International to conduct safety assessments of Everest and Annapurna, two of the most popular hiking regions. His trip and the results of the assessment were the proof he needed to resume Intrepid’s 25 itineraries there starting this month. Mr. Wade spoke recently about how travelers are crucial to Nepal’s revitalization and why they should consider heading there.
Q. What was Nepal like?
A. Most people saw the heartbreaking damage from the earthquake, but they don’t see what life is like now. The truth is that Kathmandu has a surprising energy about it. The roads are cleared and filled with traffic. Shops are buzzing with people. Electricity, phone lines and Internet are all working, too. Things are better than expected in so many ways.
What did you find from your safety assessment of Everest and Annapurna?
The Annapurna region received a green light for 97 percent of the hotels and trails as being in good shape. The trails are clearly marked and the rocks alongside the mountains aren’t in danger of falling and hitting anyone. The suspension bridges are intact. Everest is mostly in good shape. There is one section that’s more than a mile long which was destroyed, but the government has committed to building a detour by the end of September.
How important is tourism to Nepal?
It is vital to the country’s economic recovery and the largest source of foreign income, with more than 40 percent of the country’s 800,000 visitors each year coming for trekking and adventure activities. We’ve been hearing from travelers that they care about supporting Nepal but are concerned that they will get in the way and take accommodations from people living there who need them. The reality is that travelers need to come back and pay hotel owners so that they, in turn, can pay builders to rebuild their properties.
Remember, the mountains are still there. The trails are still open. The people are as welcoming as ever and want travelers back.
What’s the draw of Nepal?
There is something about Nepal that transforms travelers. It’s not just the breathtaking mountains but the wonderful Nepali people. Everest is a huge draw, too, but there is so much more to see; there are ancient towns and villages, amazing wildlife. I’d suggest heading to places like Bandipur and Bhaktapur to see the real Nepal. One of the best treks is in the Annapurna region. It goes off the beaten track and includes a community lodge stay. The government is introducing regulations to ensure trekkers hire a guide. Will this help or hinder tourism? Anything that keeps trekkers safe and local porters and guides employed is a good thing. Most of the fatalities from the Annapurna blizzards last October were trekkers without a guide.
But its success is partly contingent on the government backing the initiative with education, as it’s unlikely there are enough foreign-language-speaking guides right now. I suspect that the regulations are unlikely to inhibit demand, as costs are low and benefits outweigh the relatively small cost of a porter or guide.