“When you are traveling solo, in case of emergencies there is no one to help you,” Mani R. Lamichhane, director of the Nepal Tourism Board, told CNN. “It is fine if they are traveling in the cities, but in the remote mountains, the infrastructure is not adequate.”
“When tourists go missing or they are found dead, even the government cannot track them because they have taken remote routes,” he added.
“This decision has been made for the tourists’ benefit,” he told the Indian news agency ANI.
Nepal’s Tourism Board announced its decision earlier this month, and the ban will enter into force on April 1.
The board said it made the decision to expand a previous ban on solo hiking on Mount Everest to the whole country to prevent tourists without sufficient experience from getting into accidents or going missing on hikes.
Local guides say about a dozen trekkers go missing in Nepal’s terrain each year. Even when they are found, authorities say rescuing them is prohibitively expensive and can sometimes be impossible in remote terrain.
Mount Everest has gotten so crowded that climbers are perishing in the traffic jams
As travel has become more affordable and the popularity of mountaineering has climbed around the world, countries like Nepal — which has at least parts of eight of the world’s 10 tallest mountains within its borders — have been overrun. This has led to previously unthinkable scenes, like traffic jams on Mount Everest that can be dangerous to tired climbers, forcing them to spend more time in very high altitudes and depriving them of oxygen.
In 2019, some 300,000 trekkers traveled to Nepal, pre-pandemic figures from the government show. Some 46,000 went on solo hikes, Lamichhane of the Nepal Tourism Board told the New York Times. Many of these travelers prefer to hike alone to save money or because they appreciate the freedom to explore unbeaten paths. But the ground conditions can be dangerous, with high altitudes and changing temperatures, and authorities say it’s easy to get lost or stuck.
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It’s unclear exactly how many foreign trekkers go missing in Nepal each year and why. Local guides and law enforcement have given figures ranging from five to 15 a year.
Some experts say lax safety standards play a role. Travel author David Ways, who runs the website MissingTrekker.com, which tracks and collects individual reports of missing hikers in Nepal, wrote that “the overall standard of trekking safety in Nepal has plummeted.”
Chandra Kishor Shah, an inspector with Nepal’s Tourist Police, said five to six foreign trekkers go missing annually — many while hiking treacherous routes alone. “The unprepared trekkers, who don’t have support guides, die due to the high-altitude sickness,” he said.
After a few years, these missing persons’ files are closed, Shah said, adding that the force is currently searching for five missing trekkers from South Korea, India, Israel, Jordan and Malaysia. The Malaysian trekker has been missing since 2015, he said, and the tourist police is still searching for them at “the family’s request.” The four others went missing last year, mainly in the Everest and Annapurna regions, the country’s most popular trekking destinations.
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Nilhari Bastola, president of the Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal, told the Kathmandu Post that 10 to 15 hikers go missing in Nepal each year and that most are “free independent trekkers,” a designation given to foreigners who have obtained a permit from authorities to trek in certain unrestricted areas without a tour group or guide.
Under the new rules, FITs will have to hire a licensed guide to trek inside Nepal’s 12 national parks, including on the country’s most popular trails, like the 145-mile long Annapurna Circuit.
In January, a South Korean woman in her 50s who had been hiking alone was found dead on Mount Annapurna, according to the Korea Times. Citing a representative of the World Federation of Overseas Korean Traders Association, the outlet said the woman, Kim Jae-soon, may have died of a heart attack brought on by altitude sickness.
The U.S. State Department advises Americans never to trek alone in Nepal. According to the U.S. Embassy in Kathmandu, hikers who get injured in remote areas may need to be rescued by helicopter — a service that can cost between $3,000 and $10,000.
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Many tour operators welcomed the board’s decision, hailing it as a win for tourists’ safety and the Nepali economy. But some voiced concerns that the added expense would discourage tourists from traveling to Nepal at a time when the economy has been hit hard by the pandemic. The country is among the poorest in the world, and tourism accounts for nearly 7 percent of its GDP, according to the World Bank.
Bastola told the Kathmandu Post that the ban on solo hiking will prevent accidents and could create as many as 40,000 new jobs for Nepalis. He said the ban would “not significantly affect the trekker’s budget,” because hiring a guide costs an average of $25 to $50 a day for standard-intensity treks.
“The one-trekker, one-guide policy … will generate jobs. That’s good for Nepal’s economy,” Bastola said.