Few places could be further away from your daily grind than the breathtaking landscapes in the Nepalese Himalays, but local rules now say tourists can no longer explore these trails all on their own due to the dangers of tigers, bears, avalanches and falling ice chunks.
Until now, tourists in Nepal have been able to freely hike Himalayan trails on their own or with a group of friends, all without local assistance.
But in response to the dozens of travellers that go missing every year while tackling tough terrain and even harsher weather, Nepal has now made it mandatory for all tourists who trek in the country's Himalayan region to hire local assistance.
The rules, which came into effect at the start of April, are part of an effort to increase safety and also local employment.
Every tourist hoping to hike in the Himalayas will have to hire a guide or porter through a registered trekking company, according to Mani Raj Lamichhane, spokesperson for the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB).
Nepal is home to some of the world's most popular trekking trails, such as the Annapurna Circuit below Mount Annapurna and the EBC trek in the foothills of Mount Everest.
Several trekking routes in Nepal are remote, often without roads, communication facilities, and are far from human settlements. In case of an emergency, it can take several hours to days to rescue trekkers in these areas due to the challenging terrain and lack of infrastructure.
According to Lamichhane, every year, NTB receives around 40 to 50 cases of missing trekkers along the trail every year, and authorities often face problems in tracking and rescuing them.
"The majority of individuals who perish or disappear while trekking are those who go alone without a guide or an understanding of the terrain. These tragedies could have been avoided if they had a local guide," Nilhari Bastola, the president of the Trekking Agencies' Association of Nepal, says.
It is not always clear how or why trekkers disappear, but it is clear that trekking routes are often remote and sometimes difficult. There are wild animals such as tigers, bears, leopards and wolves in the areas, as well as possible thieves.
In higher areas, some suffer from altitude sickness or lose their bearings in the face of heavy snowfall.
While most stakeholders in Nepal have hailed the decision as a win-win for both tourists and high altitude workers, there are concerns that the new rule might discourage travellers from visiting Nepal and hit the industry gradually recovering from the coronavirus pandemic.
"It will help ensure a safe trekking experience while allowing us to keep track of trekkers and provide timely rescue services in case of any emergency situations," Lamichhane said, adding the decision was taken in consultation with the country's Trekking Agencies' Association and Joint Tourism Trade Unions Forum.
The new rule, however, will not affect the climbing industry which has its own set of regulations.
Climbing mountains alone is now only possible on the highest mountains in Nepal for mountaineers who, unlike trekkers, travel with more complex equipment such as ice axes, crampons, ropes, ladders and sometimes oxygen tanks.
Different rules remain in place on high mountains, such as the world's highest mountain, the 8,849-metre Mount Everest.
Nepal, which had previously gained the reputation of being a cheap adventure destination, is now becoming more expensive, while for certain thrill seekers, Nepal was already expensive before.
Those who want to climb to the top of Mount Everest often pay around $40,000 for it, according to the estimate of US mountaineer and blogger Alan Arnette. This includes a fee for a climbing permit from the Ministry of Tourism, which costs $11,000 in the peak season in spring.
On top come expenses for equipment, oxygen tanks, domestic flights, food and a local team of helpers to guide the route, carry the luggage and cook.
People also sometimes disappear on the high snow-covered mountains. There, their chance of survival is usually much lower than for trekkers at lower altitudes - especially if they are not rescued very quickly, says mountaineer and Himalayan expert Khimlal Gautam.
When disappearing in the so-called death zone at over 8,000 metres, where the human body breaks down and cannot recover, the chance of survival is zero after a few hours or days, he says.
In addition, there are risks such as crevasses, avalanches, falling ice chunks, freezing to death and altitude sickness.
Gautam emphasises, however, that mountaineering has recently become easier. This was also confirmed by a study published in the scientific journal PLOS One in 2020 with regard to Mount Everest.
According to the study, anyone who wants to climb it for the first time during the peak season has twice the chance of success nowadays as they did about 20 years ago. At the same time, the mortality rate has remained almost unchanged.
Possible reasons for the higher success rates, according to co-author Raymond Huey of the University of Washington, include better weather forecasts, which make it possible to find good time windows for the climb.
In addition, climbers are using more oxygen tanks - even at lower altitudes. Furthermore, there are more anchored ropes on the usual routes. And the greater experience of the local teams of helpers also helps. – dpa