Travel to Nepal after the earthquake: Country welcomes back tourists

It was four weeks to an unforeseen natural disaster. I was sat on the rooftops of Bhaktapur​ in the Kathmandu Valley late last March, blithely watching a day pass from the balcony of an open-air cafe. 

Across a lane, schoolgirls swarmed on the platform of the five-storey-high Nyatapola Temple. In Taumadhi Square below, a Buddhist monk in robes snapped selfies on his smartphone amid a stream of backpacks. Everything was as it should be in this royal medieval city.

On April 25, just one month later, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake rocked Nepal. Nearly 9000 people were killed and damage was extensive. In Bhaktapur, entire streets proved as fragile as the pottery laid out in one of its most famous squares. Aftershocks rolled on through the weeks ahead, including another major earthquake 17 days later.

In the 12 months since the quake, Nepal's tourism industry has been almost as damaged as any of the country's infrastructure. In the four months immediately following the disaster, visitor numbers dropped by more than 50 per cent in comparison to the previous year. The number of Australians who travelled to Nepal in 2015 fell by almost 25 per cent.

A year on from the first earthquake, reconstruction continues in Nepal, but tourism is very much open for business in a country where there's so much to love.

Trekking trails in the ever-popular Everest and Annapurna regions are open and clear, and the seven UNESCO World Heritage cultural sites through the Kathmandu Valley, including Bhaktapur, have also reopened.

"Everything looks normal," says Kathmandu-based trekking guide Nima Lama. "I've had groups come here and say, 'where's the earthquake?' We're bouncing back. People have just picked themselves up, dusted off their clothes and got busy."

As so many people who've travelled to Nepal will testify, there's something compelling about the country's unique mixture of geography and culture. Since the days when Kathmandu served as the final stop on the overland hippie trail between Europe and Asia in the 1960s, people have returned to Nepal time and again.

The superlatives of the country are obvious. Eight of the world's 10 highest mountains are here. The Buddha was born here, and Kathmandu contains more World Heritage-listed sites than any other city in the world.

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But there's so much more to Nepal than the obvious.

Far from the mountains, rhinos, sloth bears and tigers roam the forests of the baking lowlands. In Kathmandu, Buddhist prayer flags fly from Asia's largest stupa, almost in sight of Hindu funeral ghats. In the mountains, the prayer flags adorn every pass, adding swatches of colour to the beautifully bleak landscape.

It was one of the last countries on Earth to open to tourism – until the early 1950s, it was closed to the outside world – yet it's one of the most welcoming I've ever visited.

Burly Sherpa men with the thighs of weightlifters prove as gentle as streams, and the warming call of "tea" from untiring porters is the daily alarm call for trekkers. On the trails, the ubiquitous Nepali greeting of "namaste" comes to seem like the most beautiful word on Earth.

"People in Nepal say that you come for the mountains and you stay for the people, and that really is true," says World Expeditions' Himalayan operations manager Gavin Turner. "It's the mountains that draw people to Nepal, but you go there and there's a warmth and a radiance and a spirituality about the people that's incredibly endearing."

Turner was in Nepal two days after the earthquake and returned again last October. He says World Expeditions has guided more than 600 trekkers here since the earthquake without incident, and his own experience is that Nepal is unchanged for travellers.

"I honestly don't think it's changed the fabric of the tourist experience or the people," he says. "That was about my 25th visit, and it's still Nepal. There's still the Himalayan culture – the blend of Buddhism and Hinduism that people are fascinated by. There's still the incredible Himalayas, the trails, the welcoming people. It's safe to go back there; that's the bottom line."

For Nima Lama, like the other 500,000 Nepalis working in the tourism industry, it's been a difficult year. He's worked as a guide for 18 years for the likes of Peregrine Adventures, and is currently setting up a new trekking agency – Cho La Adventures – but he's led only three trips since the earthquake.

He remains upbeat, however. Nepal is not a country that indulges in its wounds. In the past 20 years it's seen a civil war, the massacre of its royal family and now earthquakes and a subsequent and equally crippling fuel blockade along its border with India.

Through it all, the smile and the welcome has remained – even during the war, Maoist insurgents would issue trekkers with receipts after politely requesting "donations" – and Lama believes there will be tourism upsides from the earthquake.

He says the last year has seen new and more youthful tourist operators and ideas emerge – the likes of helicopter sightseeing companies and trail running and mountain biking events – that could broaden Nepal's tourism potential beyond trekking. There will be improvements to existing hotels, and new hotels in the planning.

"In three years time people will have forgotten about the earthquake and it'll be business as usual, except that I think we'll be a notch higher because sometimes you pick things up from the debris and you build something a little more advanced," he says. 

"Seeing is believing, and you have to come here to see that things have bounced back. The best way to help Nepal is being here at the moment. I won't say everything is 100 per cent yet, but instead of giving donations, if you come and travel you're helping the Nepalese to stand up on their own and get confidence that tourists are going to come back."

The mountains and monuments of Nepal mostly stand strong, as do the people. Here's a post-quake guide to the state of play in the country's major tourist hotspots.

KATHMANDU VALLEY: HIGH AND MIGHTY

Kathmandu is far more than just a stopover en route to the Himalayas, with the Kathmandu Valley strung with seven World Heritage cultural sites. Collectively, they were among the most earthquake-damaged tourist sites in the country, but all are again open to visitors.

Kathmandu's cultural charm is arguably most memorable in a combined and contrasting visit to Boudhanath​ stupa and Pashupatinath​, just a few minutes' walk apart. Together they are Buddhism and Hinduism, life and death, cheek by cheek. 

Boudhanath is Asia's largest stupa, a soaring whitewashed monument encircled by pilgrims – the faithful walk around it 108 times – spinning prayer wheels and monasteries. The all-seeing eyes of the Buddha peer across Kathmandu from the base of its golden tower.

A couple of kilometres away is the Varanasi-style Pashupatinath, Nepal's holiest Hindu site. Among the temples and the throng of sadhus, bodies burn on riverside ghats. It should be morbid, but the overwhelming sense is of the everyday nature of death.

Kathmandu's other prime cultural site is Durbar Square, the royal heart of the city. Here, temples, palaces, courtyards and markets provide a glimpse into medieval royal life, though several buildings here collapsed in the April 25 earthquake.

A walk between Kathmandu's bustling tourist heart of Thamel and Durbar Square can be an eye-opening glimpse into the maelstrom of subcontinental city life.

The satellite towns of Patan and Bhaktapur also have heritage-listed Durbar Squares. Both areas are open to visitors, though in Bhaktapur particularly, damage was quite extensive. 

KHUMBU: EVEREST'S HOME

The Khumbu region, known to most for the soaring presence of Mount Everest, is one of Nepal's two trekking strongholds. When the earthquake hit on April 25, a resulting avalanche killed more than 20 people at Everest Base Camp.

Trek here now, however, and there's minimal evidence of those events, barring a few landslips and buildings in ruins.  Treks here typically begin with a frighteningly fantastic flight that swoops into Lukla, an airstrip and village balanced on a mountain ledge.

From Lukla, trails head north to Namche Bazaar, the Sherpa town that seems almost to spiral up the bald slopes. A famous weekly market is held at the base of the village, and there's even an Irish pub if you need a taste of the familiar.

The trail forks just beyond Namche, turning right to Everest Base Camp, or swinging left towards Gokyo Ri. This 5357-metre mountain, rising above the Himalayas' longest glacier, provides a grandstand view of Everest, but still it's base camp that draws most of the traffic.

Base camp itself is little more than a motley collection of tents among moraine rubble, but for most it's still a date with the highest mountain on Earth and a chance to climb 5545-metre Kala Pattar for an up-close view of Everest.

Trek to both Gokyo Ri and base camp (crossing Cho La pass makes it possible in one trek) and you'll be qualified to participate in the age-old trekkers' debate: is the view of Everest better from Gokyo Ri or Kala Pattar?

ANNAPURNAS: TREKKER HEAVEN

The Annapurna region is Nepal's other great mountain destination, attracting about 60 per cent of all trekkers who come to Nepal. Of the country's main tourist areas, the Annapurnas probably suffered the least earthquake damage. An engineering report last July found hazards at only three spots around the region's trail network, with just 3 per cent of lodges suffering any damage.

Everything here is as it was before, meaning some of the best trekking in Nepal. Short treks range out to the beautiful mountain village of Ghandruk and beyond, through primeval rhododendron forests to viewpoints at Poon Hill and the less known but more spectacular Kopra Ridge.

Other trekking routes head into the tight confines of Annapurna Sanctuary, seemingly hollowed inside the massif itself, and north to Mustang. This fabled desert kingdom, which almost pokes into Tibet, was closed to visitors until the early 1990s. It still requires a trekking permit, though the permit fee was cut by 80 per cent last year – $US100 instead of $US500 – in response to the earthquake.

The Annapurna Circuit, once the most popular trek in Nepal, has lost much of its trekking appeal in recent years as roads have leaked through the valleys. In their place, however, has come a new flavour of adventurers, with more and more mountain bikers now pedalling and pushing their way around this most spectacular of massifs.

See: Explore Nepal's Annapurna circuit with our interactive trekking guide

POKHARA: ADVENTURE CAPITAL

Pokhara, Nepal's second-largest city, is the country's equivalent of a Queenstown, New Zealand, or Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe – a place where adventure sports rule.

Though serving primarily as the entry point to the Annapurnas, and just a half-hour flight from Kathmandu, busy Pokhara was largely unaffected by the earthquake and continues to pump out a dizzying array of activities.

As per most adventure towns, you can dive into a bungee jump here. It's also a centre for white-water rafting and home to the 1.8-kilometre-long ZipFlyer, claimed as the world's longest and steepest zipline.

Look up and the sky will almost certainly be turning with paragliders riding the Himalayan currents. Lonely Planet describes it as "arguably the best paragliding venue on the globe" and options include the unique experience of parahawking, in which you're guided into the currents by a trained bird of prey.

Pokhara itself is a spectacular city, ranged along the foot of the Himalayas, with the classic shape of Machhapuchhare, the so-called "fish-tail mountain", rising above.

Lakeside you'll find a local, scale-version equivalent of Thamel or Khao San Road – hotels, restaurants and bars of every stripe – and if you can't be bothered with all that physical exertion, you can simply row a boat on beautiful Phewa Tal, or pretend you went to the mountains by visiting the comprehensive International Mountain Museum.

THE TERAI: EXPECTED THE UNEXPECTED

The Terai is not what you expect of Nepal. Down here, at less than 1000 metres above sea level, things are flat and subtropical and there's the presence of a couple of wildlife-preserving national parks.

The Terai was largely spared damage in the earthquakes so its premier drawcard, Chitwan National Park, operates unchanged. Visitors (almost 180,000 of them a year) come to take elephant-back safaris in search of one-horned rhinos and Bengal tigers, and to be canoed down the Rapti River to spy crocodiles.

In western Nepal, far removed from pretty much everything, Bardia National Park is like Chitwan on sedatives – the 12-hour-plus bus ride from Pokhara or Kathmandu tends to quell visitor numbers. Elephant safaris are again the jumbo item here, with gentle raft trips offering the possibility of spotting Gangetic dolphins.

The Terai town of Lumbini attracts visitors for its claim as the Buddha's birthplace. Unsurprisingly, a gaggle of international monasteries has formed around Lumbini, but it's the gleaming-white Maya Devi Temple that's the real lure. It contains a medieval carving of the Buddha's nativity scene, beside a stone supposedly marking the exact location of his birth.

See also: Explore Nepal's Annapurna circuit with our interactive trekking guide

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

welcomenepal.com 

smartraveller.gov.au 

GETTING THERE

Thai Airways flies daily to Kathmandu from Sydney and Melbourne, connecting through Bangkok. See thaiairways.com.

STAYING THERE

All hotels are open across the country. For a touch of heritage class in Kathmandu, try the gorgeous Dwarika's Hotel. Central, quiet and comfortable is the Radisson Kathmandu, in walking distance to Thamel. See dwarikas.com; radisson.com.   

STAYING SAFE

Nepal remains a country with a few safety issues. The Australian government's Smart Traveller travel advisory service (website above) still advises that travellers "exercise a high degree of caution", the same level it suggests for Thailand and France. It recommends that visitors reconsider the need to travel around the Langtang Valley and Manaslu, which were hard hit by the earthquake, though treks in those regions have recommenced this spring season.

FIVE MORE PLACES IN RECOVERY

FIJI It's been seven weeks since Fiji was hit by the largest cyclone in its history. Fiji Airways immediately offered sale fares to entice visitors, and while many resorts are temporarily closed, a number remain open.

VANUATU In March 2015 Cyclone Pam, one of the largest-ever Pacific storms, wreaked havoc across Vanuatu. Despite extensive damage, more than half of the country's hotels had reopened within weeks.

CHRISTCHURCH This New Zealand city was a blueprint for disaster recovery after its 2011 earthquake, rebuilding its city mall into a pop-up of shipping containers and running bus and cycling tours focussing on the city's rebuild.

PARIS France remains in a state of emergency until May 26 after last November's terror attacks. Reports suggest hotel occupancy across the city fell by about 20 per cent, but it remains a perennial favourite in the world's most visited country.

ETHIOPIA In the midst of its worst drought for 30 years, Ethiopia is launching a new tourism campaign intended to make the country one of Africa's top five destinations by 2020. In tourist centres such as Lalibela and the Simien Mountains, signs of the drought are minimal.

FIVE LESSER-KNOWN NEPALI SIGHTS AND EXPERIENCES

CHANGU NARAYAN This hilltop Hindu temple is the least-known and least-visited of the Kathmandu Valley's seven World Heritage sites.

GREAT HIMALAYAN TRAIL Nepal is laced with treks, but how about the trail that traverses the entire country? Just a lazy five months of trekking.

BUDHANILKANTHA See the five-metre-long reclining Vishnu statue in this off-the-beaten-track Hindu temple north of Kathmandu.

KANCHENJUNGA In the trekking quest to see Everest and the Annapurnas, the world's third-highest mountain and treks to its base camp are mostly overlooked.

GORKHA DURBAR Midway between Kathmandu and Pokhara is this striking ridge-top royal palace that was the birthplace of the king who united Nepal into a nation. Check ahead before visiting, as it was damaged in the earthquake.

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