Travel Recommendation: Updated Sept 9, 2003

There has been a recent flurry of posts asking about safety in nepal, should people go, what's it like on the ground, etc. I'm not there at this time, so I can't give you a on-the-spot report, but i do talk to people in nepal almost daily, and read everything I can on the situation. I was there earlier this year and during the state of emergency a year and half ago. But anyway, here's my own two cents on the sitch, so you can make a educated decision on your travel plans. I would disregard anyone who blithly tells you, nepal is completely safe for tourists, there are more than a few local touts posing as travelers who stand to lose quite a bit of business if people don't go. Instead understand the local situation, the added risks, and if you go, go with knowledge and some common sense precautions.

Many westerners are worried and wonder whether Nepal is a safe destination for travel and tourism. Tourism is one of a few vital industries that bring needed hard currency into the country, employs hundreds of thousands of people, and has reprecussions for far flung associated industries like handicrafts and alcoholic beverages. Many embassies have issued travel warnings, yet these broad, sweeping generalizations often lack concrete detail while irrevocably damaging tourism, as many tourists cancel or postpone their trips. Rather than taking into account local situations, govts take an overly cautious approach that is more geared toward protecting themselves than in analyzing the very different circumstances in various countries.

while the events unfolding are indeed tragic and very sad for the people of nepal, the question is whether or not it is safe for a tourist to visit. Unless new information unfolds making me believe otherwise, I still think that there is little chance that a tourist will be seriously injured by the maoists. BUT, of course there are increased risks, of course there is the slim chance a tourist can be in the wrong place at the wrong time (perhaps at like india gate in Mumbai, at a bar in bali, or visiting new york's world trade towers) but it has not happened thus far, thankfully, the maoists do not appear intent on harming tourists as part of their general strategy.
It has be first noted that no tourists have ever been hurt in a confrontation with the Maoists. They have studiously avoided harming tourists and have declared as such in public forums. The target of their attacks are not foreign tourists, but symbolic representations of state power in remote areas. The risk is less that maoists will directly target tourists, and more so that a tourist may accidently be hurt. The bombs that went off recently throughout Kathmandu were all aimed at government facilities, specifically land registry offices, a unsurprising choice given the maoist's communist stance of massive land reform. They were scattered throughout the valley in Patan, Bhaktapur, and Kathmandu. The tragic death of a young student in Ktm occurred because he was using the bathroom in the land registry office next to his school because the school's bathrooms were under construction and the bathroom was where they chose to plant the bombs. I personally find it to be a very different matter from say the bombs that went off at India Gate in Mumbai, a very highly touristed spot that inflicts random and wanton destruction. It's not certain at all where the next phase of the insurgency will go. The Maoists have thus far not targetted tourists because, in my opinion, they are ultimately seeking a legitimacy as a political entity and attacking foreigners would lessen that in the global opinion, as well as wreck ultimate havoc on the tourism industry. The maoists have lost alot of support recently, and devestating the tourism industry would further that loss and they are loath to alienate further the grass roots support, so they try to find a balance between achieving their aims and keeping sight of the end game.

It depends on how risk-adverse you are. thus far, in seven years of insurgency, no tourists have been directly harmed by the maoists, although there have been more than a few encounters which generally end in a forced donation complete with a receipt. These have been reported to have been non-threatening in general, although some common criminals have robbed tourists posing as maoists. the tourist paths in nepal do not, for the most part, coincide with the areas where the serious fighting has occurred to date. Although there are areas of increased maoist presence in certain places where tourists will pass through, like Baglung and Beni for example at the end of the Annapurna circuit or portions of the everest trek. If you are planning on trekking through areas of maoist activity, you should strongly consider trekking with a guide who can respond better to situations that could arise. trekking alone is never a good idea in general and especially unwise at this time.

Unless something dramatically changes, I still believe that tourists are in MORE danger from their own cavelier attitudes towards altitude sickness or other trail accidents than from any directed action from the maoists. There will most definately be an increased military presence on roads, entrances to towns which had become relaxed during the ceasefire. there have been no road closures or grounding of air travel. There may be some curfews called in places that tourists frequent, like Kathmandu so be alert for that. Thus far, curfews have been called in cities off the tourist trail. Roadblocks are not a big deal if you stick to tourist buses; tourists pass through quite easily. I would definately recommend against local buses for long distance travel, the roadblocks and the hassle etc, as well as the safety. Avoid night buses (all local anyway). It would be wise to avoid any large scale demonstrations that could escalate into semi-violent encounters, stone throwing, baton charging etc. and political parties will probably be protesting a lot soon to bring down the King's appointed government and reinstall the elected parties to power.

A strike has been called by the maoists for September 18-20. For people who are landing on those days, check to see if your embassy has provided special transport. if there is none, take your belongings, head outside the gate and try to catch a bicycle rickshaw. Your last choice is to hoof it to Boudanath, which is a close half hour and stay there through the strike. There is at least good tourist facilities and hotels and things to see and do. otherwise, you can hoof it all the way to thamel, would take about 3-4 hours, think of it as early trekking. during a strike, you should try to follow the lead of locals. hotels remain open, but shuttered to give the appearance of closing. a hotel with a restaurant is best, they will continue to cater during the strike. Many restaurants will be closed, but look closely, often they are open behind the shutters. every strike is different, some are strictly followed, other peeter out by the end of the day. You never know. But strikes are also generally good days to wander around (if locals are out walking) if not, stay in and catch up on a book.

lastly, there does seem to be a bit of increased propaganda (from the maoists) directed towards americans, based on their labeling of the Maoists as a terrorist organization and their offer of military aid and training, but geneally more based towards our government rather than an individual person. and on this individual level among the majority of nepalese, americans are very much welcomed with open arms due to their stereotypical image as more free-spending than other foreigners. However, I would keep a low profile as an American and not draw attention to it. If you venture off the beaten path ( at your own risk) into maoist areas, do not be forthcoming about your nationality if you are American or take a different countries passport if you have one. There is no anti-american sentiment among the general nepalese population and any anti-american sentiment is generally leveled against the government.

I hope this helps and i will continue to try to give unbiased assessments to allow people to make informed decisions. I myself am not hesitating to return to nepal in the near future (I am first heading to east africa in october and then on to nepal in january) but I understand the concern others have shown here. again, Nepal is and continues to be the victim of bad publicity in which the true local situation and risk entailed is often blown out of proportion or taken out of context.
  In many ways, its surprising to me that places in which tourists have been deliberately targeted (Bali, Kenya, Egypt...) have managed to bounce back through very coordinated publicity campaigns that have lured tourists back, while Nepal has failed to effectively counter the wave of negative publicity. There is of course general risk from traveling in a third world country, bad buses, plane crashes, crowd violence, etc and must be considered as well as collateral damage from the insurgency. but i still believe the risk is minimal, esp if you take general common sense precautions.

What does it mean for you, the average traveler?

When you arrive in Nepal, you will probably notice a heavy military presence on the streets, even with the cease fire, the army is still alert. But this shouldn't bother any normal travel. If arriving at the airport, note that only licensed taxi-drivers are allowed into the airport grounds. If someone is meeting you, they won't be able to enter beyond the main gates. Bus travel throughout Nepal is subject to frequent police and army checkposts. I highly recommend tourists to travel on the special tourist buses, which are just slightly higher priced than the regular buses. This is not only safer, but also less hassle as they tend to get through the checkposts a lot faster. But even on the regular local buses, the checkpoints are pretty quick, and pretty ineffective in my book. The trekking areas are fine, although the remote western parts remain more of a risk due to the heavy Maoist presence and also the food shortages and other problems in these undeveloped areas.

The recent downturn in tourism has really hurt the industry and you'll have to forgive the extra insistence that touts, shop owners and potential guides hassle you with. Understand that they are desperate and remain friendly and good-natured through it all.

It has become impossible to recommend either to come to Nepal or to stay away. It is a call that only you can make once you have correct and up to date information. While the chances that a visitor to Nepal will be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time is a still slim possibility, the Maoists have now active in areas that tourists occasionally visit, including portions of the Solu Khumbu, the start and finish of the Annapurna circuit and various locations throughout the Kathmandu valley.

Of course, there are precautions to take. One should avoid demonstrations and large crowds, where violence could break out. Violence could break out as young hotheads taunt and provoke police into a response. And, it goes without saying, to avoid far western and other Maoists affected areas. But the beaten path in Nepal is remains safe at the moment. The situation could change and one should always be aware of their surroundings and the situation. For my account of the days after the massacre, click The Royal Family Tragedy. I remain vigilant in watching the situation so I can feel secure in giving just such a recommendation as should every traveler before they set out. Every visitor to Nepal comes seeking different things, and those looking for a relaxed stroll in the hills will confront a more tense nation, but that doesn't mean you should necessarily stay away. They really need your business and the fact remains that the biggest threat to travellers in Nepal remains themselves. Too often, foreigners ignore their own bodies telling them to slow down or descend from altitude, and  that's where the risk lies. Nepal remains a hidden gem, a place of wonder and amazement, where beauty lies at your fingertips.  

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