Essay Summary
Tourism and Socio-Economic Change:
The Case of the Rolwaling Valley in Eastern Nepal

by Ruedi Baumgartner
in Man and Society (1997)
Makhan Jha and B.K.Choudhary, ed.;
pp. 115-139.

This book has many other useful essays on development in the subcontinent. It may be ordered from Makhan Jha, inter-India Pulications, D-17 Raja Garden, New Delhi, 110015 (India); tel: 5441120, 5467082.

The following observations are based on a study of Beding, in 1978-1979, at a time when there were 200 inhabitants and 43 households. For a full account, see:

Baumgartner, R. 1980. Trekking und Entwicklung im Himalaya, Die Rolwaling-Sherpa in Ost-Nepal im Dilemma zwischen Tourismus und Tradition. Dissenhofen, Verlag Ruegger.

Rolwaling had been settled by five families, five to six generations prior to the study. Conditions were not auspicious:

On the other hand, there were some high pastures suitable for yak grazing up to 5000m, and the entire lower valley was densely forested, providing plentiful firewood and timber.

Access from the West via the Tamba Kosi (river) has been improved only in recent times. Crossing to Khumbu over Trashi Labtsa pass (5755m) is still difficult.

Popular belief: Padmasambhava travelled through Rolwaling when bringing Buddhism to Tibet, giving it the prestige of a beyul (hidden valley) created for the refuge and shelter of the pious.

According to oral tradition, the original settlers had been socially and/or economically marginalized in their former communities in Tibet and Nepal.

Rolwaling, as encountered by the first Western visitors (Eric Shipton, Tony Hagen):
  • A modest settlement (compared to Khumbu) with an impressive gompa
  • The people had a strong emotional identification with their valley gompa
  • The traditional economy was based on cooperation regarding access to natural resources (pastures, cultivable land) with strict rules about barter-trade in grain and seed-potatoes with adjoining hill farmers
  • Well-established authority, shared by the lama and the elected headsman, who was descended from the first settlers


For "political reasons" Rolwaling was closed until 1972. From 1976, Western tourism increased.

Question: did tourism disrupt self-reliance, or was the change already under way? There was rising pressure due to increase in population in a constraining ecosystem (unlike Khumbu, where trade had allowed the population to exceed the agricultural carry capacity).

Pre-tourist economy

  • Potato cultivation (for local consumption and for trade with hillfarmers)
  • Animal husbandry: yaks were raised for milk, wool, and dung, but primarily for cross-breeds (male zopkyos for Tibet, and female zhum for neighboring valleys.
  • Tibetan demand for zopkyos had slumped in early 1960s after Chinese crackdown; also it was difficult to renew breeding stock. Herd size shrank.
  • Potato crops hit by Spongospora subterrania blight, crop yield down by a third.

Response to shrinking economy?

  • Seasonal migration for employment became necessary for more young Sherpas
  • Immigration into Rolwaling stopped
  • Division of inheritance was postponed in some families with married sons.
  • Dramatic increase in the number of young monks.

But these phenomena may not have been responses to shrinking economy:
  • Migration may have been due to the pull of attractive new opportunities rather than the push of economic pressure.
  • No evidence that immigration was actively opposed: the refugees may have found prospects better elsewhere.
  • Joint families may not have been a new phenomena.
  • The increase in monks may have been due to the special influence of the famous headlama, Gelung Pasang.

Social Change

As tourism began to generate new income, 9 out of 10 monks decided to get married. Possible explanations:
  • Celibacy is a demographic control triggered by economic hardship;
  • Tourism promotes secularism.
  • Celibacy among monks was never widely practiced by Sherpas (unlike Tibetans)
  • The death of the head lama in the winter of 1975-76 terminated his plan to establish a monastery.


Change came to Rolwaling in the 1970s after 100 years of relative stability. The strong ties with Tibet (based on religion, kinship and economic exchange) were loosened, while political integration into Nepal's Panchayat system accelerated. The challenge to subsistence came not from an imbalance in population and resources, but from external political events and crop failure. A relatively strong social fabric kept the community intact despite a decline in living standards. The opportunities presented by tourism were certainly welcomed, at least by the younger Rolwaling Sherpas.

Socio-Economic and Political Impact of Tourism

Excluding the value of hanidcrafts and household work, tourism now accounts for almost one-third of Rolwaling's income.

Competition for space (camping vs. grazing) has not been a problem. Trekkers mainly camp in Na after the Sherpas have vacated.

Competition for firewood has not been a problem; wood is collected in thick forests of southern slopes.

Manpower has been more problematic. Most groups recruit Rolwaling porters for the Trashi Laptsa pass are better equipped (with shoes and adequate clothing), better adapted to high altitude, and more familiar with the hazardous route than the hill-farmers (primarily Tamang).

Manpower demands of trekking do not directly compete with demands of potato cultivation: women traditionally do most of the fieldwork, and supplementary labor is available from Tashinam. Trekking dmands have not resulted in expanded cultivation, probably because the yield has been declining.

More problematic: cattle-breeding. Rising demand for zhum (especially from Kalingchowk) and zopkyo (Tibet), combined with the traditional prestige of cattle holdings, have resulted in larger herds. But tourism competes with husbandry for the labor involved in gathering fodder. Outsiders are unwilling to participate in hay-cutting on the steep cliffs of the north slope. With wages inflated by tourism, members of poor families are no longer willing to cut grass in exchange for butter or other products ¡V payment is almost on a par with portering. Some poorer households, without cattle, gather and store hay in order to sell it in the winter. Thus tourism enables the poorer villagers to indirectly profit from investments of cattle owners.

The net result has been a shifting of more work to the Sherpa women. With men absent on treks and expeditions, the women have to take over more of the grazing duties formerly performed by young men. However, some families have pooled their herds and rotate duties.

Impact of Tourism on Distribution of Wealth

Previously, the economic stratification of Rolwaling households was relatively stable, and was primarily based on holdings of land and cattle. Other areas, including Khumbu, have more instability due to the vicissitudes of trade.

Expeditions offered poorer families another source of outside employment, necessary to supplement inadequate income from potato harvests. Richer households were able to invest income in productive assets, especially cattle, and to a lesser extent in land, which was less attractive due to the potato blight and also to the costly social and religious obligations which are linked to ownership of land.

Thus, in the short run at least, tourism had a stabilizing effect on the distribution of wealth. This may change, as increasing demand gives employment opportunities to several sons in poorer families, allowing accumulation of enough income to invest in land and cattle. But the effect is not consistent. Income, including tourism income, is rather evenly distributed among the upper strata households, but tourist income is very unevenly distributed in lower income households; for some, the new income will only cause suffering due to the accompanying inflation.

Changes in Political Power Structure

The new wealth of young Sherpas, resulting from activity not connected with traditional values and skills, lead to a power struggle in Rolwaling. The young Sherpa entrepreneurs, with connections to Nepalese society, displaced the older generation, whose ties to Tibet were no longer so useful. Yet the rise to political power of young and even “low class” Sherpas has been accepted smoothly by Rolwaling society. There is no guarantee that the situation will remain so orderly if the economic and social changes accelerate.


  1. Sale of locally-controlled tourism services has allowed most Rolwaling households to reverse the trend of declining living standards.
  2. Social change has accelerated, but is still occurring in a traditional fashion.
  3. Politically, economically, and religiously, Rolwaling has been reoriented away from Tibet and towards Kathmandu.
  4. Integration of Rolwaling into Nepal is accompanied by disintegration of social traditions; the young are oriented toward the outer world, the experience of the older generation is marginalized, economic and social activities are disassociated, and the younger Sherpas are less interested in traditional festivals.
  5. Resource management is no longer seen as essential to survival; there is now a danger of abuse both by cultivation and by trekking.
  6. The valley is increasingly dependent on the outside world economically, both for food and income.
  7. Most households remain attached to the valley and resist the temptation to migrate to Kathmandu.
  8. Although increased household income benefits Rolwaling women, their workload has increased; the shortage of manpower limits the educational opportunities of girls.

Stages of Touristic Penetration and Development

In general, trekking in Nepal seems to fit the model proposed by Cohen, Forster, and Greenwood:

Stage I: discovery. Remote locale is visited by researchers, explorers, and adventurers. There is no local adaptation to visitors’ needs, other than traditional hospitality.

Stage II: development. Increasing number of tourists leads to host responses; resources are diverted from traditional use to tourist services; development is largely spontaneous and under local control. Social and economic change occurs rapidly.

Stage III: institutionalization. Tourism development is planned; services become standardized and professionalized. Decision-making passes to better-financed outside interests, including service providers and service investors, government and non-governent agencies, and foreign “donor groups.” Competition for local resources has a negative impact on traditional production.

Rolwaling has moved into Stage II. Khumbu would seem to be in transition from Stage II to III.

A possible Stage IV is envisioned: overuse of tourism resources leads to decline in visits and a fall in local living standards. This stage may be delayed by continuous growth in demand and be price differentiation, leading to the arrival of “tourists with more modest expectations, who still experience the temporary change from a polluted industrial environment [back home] to an overused touristic area as attractive and worthwhile” (p. 133). Lessons for a Development Oriented tourism Policy

There seems to be no self-regulating mechanism to keep tourist traffic within the carrying capacity of the destination. Timing is very important: positive policy measures must take effect before irreversible social and economic changes occur.

Tourism in Rolwaling has been experienced as a one-sided external interference into village society, with no moderating development assistance. Such assistance should have shown people how to improve traditional production and develop new village-based economic activities (eg collection and processing of medicinal plants). Incentives are needed to plow profits back into local subsistence production (i.e., enhance potato and cattle production). Assistance is necessary in expanding exploitation of touristic resources.
The main touristic assets of the valley are the Trashi Labsta crossing and a wide range of mountain peaks accessible from base camps on the high pastures of the valley. Construction of permanent base camps alternatively usable for shepherds and offeing mountain guide training to young Rolwaling Sherpa would have promoted a broader local economic basis. On the other hand, short treks into the valley which bring only minimal economic demand and leave only trash on the pasture lands, should rather be limited (135).