The village of Tarkegyang used to be a scenic stopover on the trekking route through the Helambu region of Nepal . Homes dotted a hillside framed by rugged mountain peaks. Hikers could spend the night at any number of lodges on their way farther north.
The earthquake that rocked this tiny Himalayan nation last April changed things drastically. Tremors flattened the town, bringing down most of the settlement’s houses. The village gompa, or religious chapel, partially collapsed and has sat for months, covered by a tarp.
Despite the devastation, some in the village are already calling for tourists to return. Brot Coburn, an author and college instructor who has worked in Nepal for decades, visited Tarkegyang earlier this summer with a World Bank official. They asked people what they needed most.
“Send tourists, send trekkers,”Coburn recalls one village representative saying. “We can feed them and we can show them the mountains. If they want to help with rebuilding they can, but we won’t ask them to."
Trekking companies and Nepalese tourism officials pushed a similar message in the wake of the earthquakes and aftershocks that killed 9,000 people last spring. Communities have been rallying to help each other rebuild, but economic activity and the upcoming fall trekking season remain a concern. While official reports have declared some of the most popular areas safe, bookings are down, tourism officials say.
While the earthquake hit Nepal hard, the destruction wasn’t uniform, varying between regions and even villages. Some areas are nearly untouched and ready for business; other towns were wiped off the map. While landslides remain a concern and the effects of the summer monsoon season have yet to be surveyed, Coburn says that people across Nepal are urging tourists to come back.
Tourism officials say most places will be ready to go once the trekking season starts in full this October. Many businesses across the region are depending on its success.
“Our major source of income is tourism. We are welcoming foreign tourists,” says Ramesh Dhamala, president of the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal. “It is very important to build up the hope of the people.”
The most famous trekking route in Nepal remains mostly intact, and tourism officials say it is open for business. Approximately 83 percent of the buildings along the 40-mile trail to Everest Base Camp sustained no damage from the quake, according to an assessment conducted this summer by California-based engineering firm Miyamoto International. All nine major bridges along the route also went untouched.
Most of the lodges and homes that were damaged can be fixed, and building owners have already begun working on repairs, according to the report.
Surveyors found several areas of concern along the route, which tops out at 17,590 feet and can take as long as two weeks to complete. Most significantly, engineers recommend rerouting a section of the trail and relocating buildings in the villages of Tok Tok and Benkar. But on the whole, the Everest region fared well and is safe for trekkers.
One of the most popular trails in the entire country, the Annpurna Circuit, traces a 145-mile circle around the mountains. The route up to Annapurna Base Camp is also a common destination for visitors. Both are open and ready for trekkers.
The routes in and around the Annapurna massif were virtually unaffected by the earthquakes. The same team that surveyed the Everest region found damage to just 3 percent of buildings in the Annapurna region. Of the thirty bridges they assessed, none were found to be affected.
The Langtang Valley, Nepal’s third most-popular trekking area, did not fare nearly as well in April’s disaster. The quake shook loose an avalanche above Langtang Village, burying the town under ice and earth. Early media reports indicated about 200 people died.
While officials from TAAN and Nepal Mountaineering Association said they have been mobilizing crews to work on trails and deliver aid in the area, it remains unclear exactly when the Langtang Valley will be safe again, though they are hopeful it can be ready by October. Similar aid work is taking place in other districts as well and involve partnerships with Climate Alliance of Himalayan Communities and the United Nations World Food Programme.
Other treks in and near the Langtang region, including the Tamang Heritage Trail, the Helambu region and the Goiskunda area, are safe, tourism officials said. Camping gear may be necessary in some places and can be organized through hired guides, they said.
Tourism is just a small part
Nepal faces a long road to recovery. Thousands of homes need to rebuilt in districts across the country. And reconstruction isn’t the only challenge Nepal faced this year: The nation just adopted a new constitution, a process that sparked violent protests this summer.
In the bigger picture, tourism represents just four percent of the country’s gross domestic product, and countless affected villages are miles from any popular tourist route. But while the return of trekkers to Nepal won’t serve as a panacea to the country's woes, it certainly won’t hurt, said Ben Ayers, executive director of the dZi Foundation, a development organization that partners with remote communities around Nepal.
“It’s not insignificant but it’s not going to totally move the needle,” Ayers said.
His suggestion? Come to Nepal, enjoy the Himalaya and tip your porters well.