Bridges-PRTD runs a study-abroad program that focuses on tourism development in Rolwaling and Khumbu

Biodiversity and Tourism in the Sacred Valley

paper read by
Seth Sicroff and Empar Alos Alabajos
Bridges-PRTD, Ithaca, USA
International Symposium on the Himalayan Environments:
Mountain Sciences and Ecotourism/Biodiversity
24-26 November 2000, Kathmandu


Rolwaling Valley in north central Nepal presents an unusual combination of problems and opportunities linking biodiversity and tourism development. It is well-established that tea house trekking offers the most beneficial results both for the hosts and for most guests (Odell and Lama 1998). Relatively isolated and unimpacted, Rolwaling has been prevented from realizing its potential as an ecotourism destination by an unfair regulation requiring trekkers to acquire expensive trekking peak permits, which also entail traveling with fully-equipped caravans. The prominent models for tourism development are inappropriate in Rolwaling; with only modest external assistance, however, Rolwaling could easily transform itself into a popular trekking destination in its own right and a convenient route of access to or egress from Sagarmatha National Park.


Sicroff presenting on Rolwaling biodiversity and tourism at Kathmandu conference, Nov. 2000Since 1999, the authors have been running a study-abroad program that focuses on tourism development in the Khumbu District and Rolwaling. Rolwaling initially caught our attention because of the well-publicized danger of a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) from Tsho Rolpa, the largest moraine-dammed glacial lake in the Himalayas. This danger seems to have been mitigated through an ambitious engineering project initiated by the Netherlands-Nepal Friendship Association. It turns out, however, that Rolwaling has other problems. While the Sherpas of Khumbu have become the most prosperous minority in Nepal, the Sherpas of Rolwaling languish in a stultifying economic limbo due to the arbitrarily restrictive regulations on tourist access. As matters stand now, Rolwaling is a remarkable cultural and natural sanctuary, but one which is on the threshold of rapid change on a scale that could easily overshadow the most violent GLOF. Will planners be as successful in mitigating this threat as they have been at averting a catastrophic flood?

Map:Rolwaling in Nepal
Figure 1. Location of Rolwaling Valley in Nepal.


Rolwaling’s value as a biological refuge derives partly from its location and physical isolation (Figure 1). Running east-west for approximately 30 km, it is separated from Tibet by a stretch of the Himalayas that includes Gauri Shankar (7134 m), which for some time was thought to be the highest peak in the world. The Rolwaling River flows into the Bhote Kosi (one of several in Nepal); this Bhote Kosi soon becomes the Tamba Kosi. Simigaon, at the confluence of the Rolwaling and the Bhote, is about 90 km east of Kathmandu as the crow flies. It can be reached by a 4 or 5 day trek from Barabise, which lies on the road to Tibet in the next valley to the west, or by a 2 or 3 day trek from Dolakha, the district administrative seat, located on a short branch off the Swiss road that connects Lamosangu with Jiri. The latter trail, the lower trails in Rolwaling itself, and particularly the steep ascent to Simigaon, are subject to frequent damage during the monsoon season, a problem that has recently been alleviated somewhat by improvements initiated by the Austrian agency Eco Himal and by the Tsho Rolpa GLOF hazard mitigation project being carried out by Nepal Hydro and General Construction in conjunction with Bhutwal Energy and HMG's Department of Hydrology and Meteorology (DHM) (Figure 2). To the east of Rolwaling is Khumbu district, which in 1976 was gazetted as Sagarmatha National Park. The wall of peaks between Rolwaling and Khumbu is breached by the formidable Tashi Laptsa pass: with good weather, one can make the crossing between the last settlement in Rolwaling and the most westerly settlement on the Khumbu in about four days. Altogether, access to Rolwaling is not quite impossible, but definitely more inconvenient than the most popular trekking routes, several of which can now be approached by air.

Map: Rolwaling and Tamba
Figure 2. Tamba and Rolwaling valleys (click for larger view)

Cultural factors have contributed to the conservation of species in Rolwaling. According to Tibetan Buddhism, about 1,250 years ago Padmasambhava [aka Guru Urgyen Rinpoche] plowed the valley out of the mountains in order to serve as one of eight beyul, refuges that were to remain hidden until, in a time of religious crisis, they would serve as sanctuaries, protecting dharma until the danger passed. The neighboring Khumbu was one such zone, and Rolwaling, in the shadow of the mountain abode of the goddess Tseringma (ie Gauri Shankar), was another. Unlike Khumbu, Rolwaling remained unvisited and unimpacted until the nineteenth century, and then by a very few wanderers and outcasts. Due to the limited amount of arable land and the unsuitability of this east-west valley as a trade route between Tibet and India, Rolwaling’s inhabitants remained poor and few, but devoutly mindful of their spiritual heritage. The Buddhist bans on hunting and slaughter, elsewhere observed less scrupulously, have protected the fauna; even plants are considered living creatures that ought not to be harmed if possible.

A third general factor that has contributed to the relatively unimpacted state of Rolwaling Valley has been the government’s limitation of tourist access. Until recently, one needed both a trekking peak permit and a regular trekking permit. Last year, the requirement for regular trekking permits was eliminated in the most popular trekking districts, including Annapurna, Langtang, and Khumbu. Nothing was announced about trekking permits in Rolwaling, but most agencies have interpreted the new regulation to mean that they are not required. Officially, however, you still need a trekking peak permit to trek in Rolwaling. A trekking peak permit is not the same thing as a trekking permit. Trekking permits are dispensed by the Department of Immigration, and revenues go to His Majesty’s Government (HMG). Trekking peak permits, on the other hand, are granted by the Nepal Mountaineering Association (NMA), and all funds collected belong to that organization. The trekking peaks are a set of about 20 smaller peaks ranging from about 5500 to 6500 m. Taller peaks require regular expedition permits, and these are also administered by the NMA.

The rules for trekking peak permits changed in 1999; previously there were two sets of trekking peaks, A being slightly higher than B and costing $300 for a ten-person permit instead of $250. Now all the permits are $350 for four people; $40 each is charged for the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth members; $25 more for each additional member up to twelve. The trekking peak permit requirement, however, entails other costs: the permits can only be acquired through a registered trekking agency. This agency is theoretically supposed to grant them only to groups which are spending at least $20 per person; they are supposed to have an insured guide, which means that the group must be safely equipped, and effectively entails a full complement of tents, camping equipment, food, and porters. In other words, no teahouse treks. For years, Immigration personnel have openly informed would-be trekkers that they can indeed hike in Rolwaling if they are willing to pretend that they intend to climb a trekking peak. So, although Rolwaling has theoretically been restricted to climbers, in fact it is open to trekkers, provided they put a lot of money into the pockets of the NMA and a trek outfitter. Practically, however, few non-climbing trekkers have been going to Rolwaling, and the local people are making very little money from the self-sufficient group treks. Therefore there has been very little development of infrastructure, and not much impact on the environment.

In terms of biodiversity, Rolwaling is worthy of close attention. Janice Sacherer estimated that there are approximately 300 different plant species (Sacherer 1977, 1979). The atypical east-west orientation of the valley creates conditions unlike those in any other valley of the Himalayas. Partially shielded by its southern wall from the monsoon, Rolwaling has characteristics of the dry inner Himalaya; a good part of the flora derives from the Tibetan steppe and, in Nepal, is more typical of eastern valleys. As in other Himalayan valleys, Rolwaling’s ecosystems vary dramatically from the broad glaciated valleys to the chiseled fluvial channel downstream; to a much greater extent than in other valleys, the sharp contrast between north- and south-exposed slopes affects the distribution of species. The east-west orientation of the valley also makes it a convenient corridor for mobile fauna. Rolwaling is visited by quite a few of the charismatic mammals, including wolves, fox, several species of goat, bear, jackal, langur, and several members of the cat family, notably the snow leopard. Every resident that we interviewed on the subject is convinced that yeti frequent the valley. In short, Rolwaling’s biological assets are clearly worth studying; their conservation should also be accorded high priority as the valley’s protective isolation breaks down. Furthermore, one cannot consider development scenarios in the high Rolwaling Valley without assessing the implications for the rich subtropical ecosystems of the Tamba Valley into which it feeds.

If isolation has had a benign effect on the natural ecosystem, the human residents of Rolwaling have observed the tourism boom with envy. In next door valleys, every family could throw open its doors to backpackers and cash in on the amenity values of their homeland; in Rolwaling, the stakeholders stare wistfully as organized trekking caravans deploy their tents by the river, cook up their burrito and quiche feasts, and buy nothing from the local residents. In Khumbu, their relatives enjoy the benefits of prosperity: schools, upscale monasteries, telephone, electricity, numerous clinics, a hospital, post office – not to mention Internet, saunas, pool halls and chocolate croissants: none are available in Rolwaling. Many young men have found employment with trekking and climbing services. Such work entails extended absence from Rolwaling, and even emigration to Kathmandu or Khumbu. The result is a brain and manpower drain that leaves the villages of Rolwaling populated by women, children, and those no longer capable of strenuous labor. Agricultural fields have been abandoned, livestock ineffectively tended, trails poorly maintained. Alcohol, the only recreational option, is a serious health problem.

This disparity between the neighboring districts has created in Rolwaling (as in the access routes) an intense demand for free access to backpackers and economic opportunity. Last year, due to Maoist attacks on police primarily in western Nepal (not in Rolwaling or Tamba), the police checkpost in Simigaon was removed. There is no longer any effective restriction on independent trekkers. Inevitably the word will get out, and they will begin to arrive.

The question is: how can the impending tourism expansion be managed in a way that minimizes the environmental and cultural damage? There are several prominent models for sustainable tourism development in Nepal alone, and each has many positive aspects. However, in the next pages we will mention only the negative aspects, and indicate why the major models are poorly suited to Rolwaling.


First, the national park next door in Khumbu. While the park is generally credited with reducing deforestation in Khumbu, it has accomplished little of what it set out to do. The money collected has all gone to HMG. A museum was built, but it is shamefully maintained. Many of the protective policies proved to be counter-productive, and some of them have been reversed and an attempt made to revive traditional conservation practices. Almost every progressive step in Khumbu has been initiated by local NGOs, especially the Sagarmatha Pollution Control Committee (SPCC), and by international donors such as the Himalayan Trust founded by Sir Edumund Hillary (which has built a hospital at Khunde as well as many schools) and Eco Himal (which installed the hydel plant below Thame). In any case, there is little likelihood of UNESCO’s designating another World Heritage Site in Nepal: as it is, there has been repeated discussion of de-listing Nepal’s WHSs because of mismanagement.

The Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) has received glowing praise from itself and other members of the development community. Unlike the Sagarmatha National Park, which can claim to be understaffed and underfunded, ACAP has micromanaged its domain, right down to dictating the allowable colors for signs in the Annapurna Sanctuary (yellow and black). However, in a series of interviews with lodge owners in November 2000, we heard numerous complaints. Officials are overpaid and do little work (“For them, it's like winning the lottery”), and recently the top positions have been filled by political appointment; most of the money is spent in Pokhara and Gandruk, where ACAP has offices; nobody comes to inspect conditions or talk to people about problems in more remote villages. One owner of a new lodge in Ghorepani told how he got the wood to build his lodge: “ACAP wanted the towns to pay for transport of electrification equipment, but they couldn't afford it. The people of Ulleri complained, and ACAP allowed them to cut a grove of old-growth forest to pay for the cost. So I bought 11 trees.” The most common complaints concerned the imposition of uniform prices for in the lodges. ACAP had required that each town set up a Hotel Management Committee to fix prices for food and accommodations. That means that the smaller and less attractive teashops are supposed to charge the same as the newer and fancier lodges. Since the committees are made up only of the wealthiest entrepreneurs in the village, who naturally stand to gain most by preventing the smaller facilities from undercutting their prices, it is no surprise that they have refused to allow discounts and they have also refused to limit new construction or the number of rooms in a lodge. While it may seem that everybody is at least making some money, economic opportunity for the less well-to-do is tainted by the burden of debt.

A third model, consistent in many ways with ACAP, is Eco Himal’s Rolwaling Ecotourism Project (RTEP). Eco Himal (“the Society for Ecological Alps-Himalaya Cooperation”) an INGO well-funded by the Austrian government, has been involved in several high profile projects including two hydroelectric installations to serve Khumbu, the first of which was placed directly in the path of the eminently foreseeable Dig Tsho Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (Ives 1986). In numerous publications (Inmann and Luger 1998; Luger et al. 2000), the project leaders have described their exceedingly ambitious plans for Rolwaling. The cornerstone of this project is the realization that organized groups have contributed virtually nothing to the local economy, while inflicting the typical negative impact: resource depletion, waste accumulation, loss of cultural self-esteem. In view of the lack of infrastructure, the absence of local political structures, and the dearth of service skills, Eco Himal proposes the following measures as prerequisites for the initiation of Free Independent Trekker (FIT) tourism in Rolwaling:

While Eco Himal has done some laudable work, the impact in Rolwaling itself has been negligible; furthermore, there are basic flaws in their vision that, in our view, vitiate the positive potential. First is Eco Himal’s perception that the village of Beding, which is the core of the Gauri Shankar Ward of Dolakha District (the ward that occupies most of Rolwaling Valley) is essentially a basket case. When we met Maximilian Petrik, Eco Himal's field manager, as we were on our way to visit Rolwaling for the first time in March 1999, he told us that a) we would find “[virtually] nobody there: everybody with half a brain has left to find work in Khumbu or Kathmandu, and the really smart ones have gone to Europe or America”, and b) “it is impossible to work there … the CDC just fights all the time.” In view of the impossibility of achieving a satisfactory level of “participatory development,” Eco Himal has done virtually no work in Rolwaling Valley itself other than initiate some small-scale trail improvement work. [A model eco lodge, to be used for training purposes, has been built in Simigaon, at the mouth of the valley; or rather, it has been half-built and left unused for the past two years; meanwhile, since the planners chose to construct the lodge on a scenic knife-edge ridge, landslides are threatening to undermine it (Figures 3, 4 and 5).] Instead, Eco Himal has focused on the gateway regions, organizing CDCs in the villages along the trails from Barabise and Dolakha to Simigaon, installing water taps, establishing a mountaineering school for guides in Thame, and holding English training courses. The latter, ballyhooed in press releases as being held in Rolwaling, were actually held near Singate, a few hours from the Dolakha trailhead and at least two days’ walk from Rolwaling Valley. Nobody from Rolwaling attended.

Eco Himal lodge at Simigaon
Figure 3. Unfinished Eco Himal training lodge on the ridge above Simigaon (click for larger image)

Slumping slope beneath Eco Himal lodge Slumping slope beneath Eco Himal lodge
Figures 4 and 5. Slumping slope beneath Eco Himal training lodge (click for larger images)

Slumping slope beneath Eco Himal training lodge (click for larger image)

Apart from the legitimate frustrations entailed in trying to forge a community consensus and elicit cooperation from a populace that tends to disperse in search of employment, there are other impediments to the implementation of Eco Himal’s vision. First, Beding gets rather uncomfortable by late fall. The valley is narrow, the fog rolls in by early afternoon, and after 3 o'clock, when the sun disappears behind the southern ridge, it gets downright cold. During the monsoon season, when most of the villagers are at home, the trails are messy if not impassible. Unlike Singate, where Eco Himal has its relatively posh headquarters, Beding has no electricity, or any other facilities for that matter. It is not a place where a senior INGO official is likely to want to spend a lot of time. Secondly, the high level of alcoholism makes it difficult to establish viable working relationships with the residents. Even the monks and the "big people" (prominent citizens) are prone to violent outbursts. Charges of embezzlement and domestic abuse have been leveled at those who work most closely with Eco Himal. Third, Eco Himal’s “bottom up” trajectory appears to justify a go-slow approach. At least, there is no sense of urgency. On the trail below Simigaon in October 2000 we met one of the Nepali assistants who is based in Eco Himal's Singate headquarters; he told us that he had just been to Beding to see if he could organize a work group to install a water pipe, but found no one. When we arrived in Beding, we mentioned this to a lama with whom we were staying. "Yes," he said, "this man came in the early afternoon when everybody was working in the potato fields; then he went to look for a woman, which is really why he came. He was gone before 5 o'clock, when everybody comes home from the fields." Whether or not a woman was involved, one wonders why the assistant would not have expected people to be in the fields at that time, and why he could not stay longer. Whatever the truth of the matter, this level of miscommunication is surprising in a project that has theoretically been underway for four years.

More seriously, Eco Himal has deliberately deceived the people of Beding. When we arrived for the first Bridges-PRTD program in October 1999, we discussed with our host whether it might not be appropriate to petition the Minister of Civil Aviation and Tourism to change the status of Rolwaling and make it accessible to independent teahouse trekkers. He informed us that such a petition had been solicited by Petrik two years before; everybody had signed it, but they never heard anything from the government. We immediately rushed down to Singate to find out the facts. Petrik readily admitted what we had heard. "What happened with the petition?" we asked.

"I filed it."
"You didn't give it to the Minister?"
"No. They're not ready for ecotourism. When they are, we'll force HMG to change the regulations."
"And you didn't tell the villagers that you were holding onto their petition?"
"No. It wasn't necessary."

The experience of Eco Himal underlines two lessons. First, it is not necessarily a good idea to freeze development pending extensive social engineering and infrastructure enhancement. It is true that many aspects of the ecotourism ideal are lacking; in particular, there are no police, rescue, medical or other services; there is no electricity; sanitatary and waste disposal systems are non-existent; the locals are unindoctrinated in Western hospitality values and skills, and there are only primitive educational and political institutions. All of these have come to other areas of Nepal after the arrival of tourists. It is pointless to try to convince poor people to upgrade their villages in these respects in the absence of a tangible market. Right now the tourist traffic and the attendant negative ecological and cultural impacts simply are simply inconsequential. There is no need to impose international standards, with the usual restrictions on forest and other resources, not to mention the exclusion of goats and other economic sacrifices. Trees will have to be cut for lodges, as well as for new homes as the local standards improve and expatriated Rolwaling natives return from Kathmandu and elsewhere. The beauty of teahouse trekking is that it can be jump-started; safeguards and corrective measures can be introduced once their value is appreciated.

Secondly, it is not necessarily a good idea to entrust administration, whether explicitly or by default, to an INGO that cannot be scrutinized and held accountable. Even supposedly independent academics are too dependent on the good graces of the administrative organizations for both data and extended access to be expected to render an unbiased assessment.

If none of the state-of-the-art mechanism for ecotourism development is appropriate, what do we suggest?

  1. HMG should eliminate the unfair and unnecessary universal requirement for a trekking peak permit, and allow independent backpackers access to Rolwaling.
  2. Beding's CDC has the right under law to charge a user's fee to all non-local traffic. It should immediately declare that Gauri Shankar Ward is a locally protected area, a Rolwaling People's Park. Even a modest fee such as 250-400 NRs per person would fund significant enhancements of tourism infrastructure and local living standards.
  3. Contrary to Eco Himal's perception, Rolwaling is not a helpless basket case incapable of any development initiative without external assistance. We have spoken to several Rolwaling natives currently running trekking agencies in Nepal as well as Khumbu entrepreneurs who are eager to set up first-class lodges and other services in Rolwaling as soon as the shackles of limited access are removed.
  4. Rolwaling's CDC should solicit the cooperation of NGOs such as the SPCC and the Tengboche Developent Project. We have spoken to administrators of both these organizations, and they are ready to help. Hari Karki, director of SPCC, told us that he could send an assistant to inspect the situation and make recommendations to the local people, even bringing a slide show to demonstrate the risks and opportunities of development as they have evolved in Khumbu; the cost for a two-week program would be approximately $200. Dr. Amchi Sherab and Michael W. Schmitz, manager of the Tengboche Development Project, who have set up a Tibetan clinic in Namche and introduced cultivation of native medicinal herbs in Tengboche are willing to take on a Rolwaling assistant as apprentice so that he or she could return to Beding and set up a similar program there. At a minimal cost, one could bring in staff from ACAP or the Kanchenjunga Area Conservation Project (KCAP) as well as foreign Nepali academics and others with applicable expertise; they could provide short-term assistance without saddling the villagers with a full-blown management apparatus. A few years down the road, once tourism has shown itself to provide lucrative opportunities, the local residents might be ready to cooperate with a more formal administration; or they might choose to go it alone.
  5. Market the valley, not as "Rolwaling/Eco Himal" but as "Rolwaling, the Sacred Valley" .


    One of Rolwaling's assets as a tourism destination is its status as a sacred valley. Aside from the traveler's mundane interest in picturesque local sites, customs, and beliefs, there is a special interest in transcendent reality. Whether on pilgrimage or in search of "adventure," tourists are generally looking for something like a spiritual experience -- inner renewal, the scale and meaning of life, respite from routine. It is no accident that this sort of experience has traditionally been sought in remote and dramatic landscapes: secret valleys, lofty peaks, and mysterious lakes have inspired spiritual epiphanies, rapturous travelogues, slideshows and postcards home.

    In a general sense, Rolwaling shares in the sacred charisma of Nepal (the birthplace of Buddha and host to several of the most important Buddhist and Hindu pilgrimage destinations) and particularly of the Himalayas. Myth aside, this youngest and greatest mountain range on Earth is fascinating for its dramatic tectonic history as well as its impact on every aspect of the regional and global environment. Not only do these peaks feed the sacred Indus, Ganges, and Bhramaputra rivers, they also directly cause the South Asian monsoon, the foundation of agriculture throughout the region. It is not surprising that the Himalayas are revered by hundreds of millions of Hindus and Buddhists as the home of gods. Himalaya means "Snow Place" but it is also the name of a god, the father of Shiva's wife Parvati, who lives with his queen Mena "in a palace ablaze with gold, attended by divine guardians, maidens, scent-eating creatures, and other magical beings" (Bernbaum 1990). Poets and prophets have described the Himalayas as an earthly paradise, a direct link to the heavenly version.

    We have already mentioned Rolwaling's status as a real-world Shambala, and the cultural conservatism of its people. In assessing the value of spirituality as a tourist asset, it is important to keep in mind the context: Rolwaling would benefit in a synergistic way from the spiritual allure of the Himalayas, but it must also compete with the neighbors. In fact, there are well-known myths that connect many prominent topographical features of the Sherpa homeland with important figures in the Tibetan Buddhist and the Hindu pantheons. Mt. Everest, in particular, would seem a formidable competitor in the sacred stakes.

    While Everest today looms in the Western imagination as the preeminent peak of the preeminent range, it might more properly be regarded as one of hundreds of sacred mountains in the Himalayas. According to Bernbaum (1990), the usual translation of the Tibetan name Jomolungma as "Goddess Mother of the World" is probably a mistranslation. He considers Jomo (goddess) to refer to the resident deity on that peak, which is possibly further qualified as lung – either "wind" or "place": "Lady of the Wind" or "Goddess of the Place." But he favors another interpretation: Lungma might have been shortened, in a linguistic strategy typical of the Tibetan handling of long names, from Miyo-Lungsangma, one of the Five Sisters of Long Life. Each of these beneficent goddesses, who inhabit mountain peaks above glacial lakes along the southern border of Tibet, controls a special boon, but together they are supposed to protect Buddhism. Miyo herself gives the blessing of food; her sister Tashi Tseringma's special gift is long life; Tekar Dosangma grants whongdup, or good luck; Chopen Dinsangma grants wealth; Thingri Shelsangma gives telepathic powers. It may be that this grander interpretation of Everest's name has recently become accepted in Khumbu, where the importance of Everest as a tourist draw is sufficient authority.

    Actually, Everest is not even the most sacred peak in Khumbu, the district in which it lies. That honor belongs to Khumbila (derived from Khumbui Yul Lha, or "Khumbu's Country God"), a peak on whose lower slopes are perched the major villages: Kunde, Khumjung, and Namche Bazaar. Khumbila is identified as one of the 21 demons (apparently Bön entities) that Guru Rinpoche subdued and recruited to the protection of Buddhist dharma. Like most other sacred peaks, Khumbila is of purely local significance, religiously speaking. However, it is much more important, in this respect, than Everest, which has acquired "sacred" value primarily as a result of the recent discovery that it is the highest mountain in the world, and thus a fitting symbol of our highest aspirations.

    Compared to Khumbu, Rolwaling's peaks lie somewhat higher in the sacred pecking order. Everest's resident goddess Miyolungsangma is easily trumped by Tashi Tseringma (Luck Long-Life-Female), who has an abode atop Chomolhari, the most sacred mountain of western Bhutan, and on Gauri Shankar in Rolwaling – which is also venerated by Hindus as the abode of the great got Shiva in his ascetic form. In addition to Gauri Shankar, Rolwaling can boast of more than a dozen discrete sacred sites, including the local pilgrimage route to Lake Oma (Sacherer 1977).


    In discussions with the chairman of the Beding CDC and the head lama of Beding Monastery, the two projects that emerged as significant to the future of Rolwaling Valley were the rehabilitation of the local primary school of the gompas in Beding and in Na. The enhancement of monastic infrastructure was seen as particularly important as a counterbalance to the cultural impact of tourism. In addition to the renovation of existing facilities, the goal is to establish a monastic institute to train monks not only from the local wards but from all of Nepal. In discussions with the chairman of the Beding CDC and the head lama of Beding Monastery, the two projects that emerged as significant to the future of Rolwaling Valley were the rehabilitation of the local primary school of the gompas in Beding and in Na. The enhancement of monastic infrastructure was seen as particularly important as a counterbalance to the cultural impact of tourism. In addition to the renovation of existing facilities, the goal is to establish a monastic institute to train monks not only from the local wards but from all of Nepal.

    Immediately following the Hindu festival of Dasain, in which thousands of animals are sacrificed throughout Nepal, Rolwaling Sherpas observe a solemn holiday in which rituals are performed to assist the slaughtered animals in finding their way to a better position on the wheel of life. This festival has potential as a tourist attraction, especially for Western vegetarians and others concerned with animal welfare: a vegetarian Dasain would offer an alternative to remaining in Kathmandu Valley and witnessing the horrendous blood-letting. The notable popularity among tourists of the Mani Rimdu festival at Tengboche suggests that such a celebration would be a significant element in the promotion of tourism in Rolwaling.

    Like many Himalayan valleys, Rolwaling has rich ethnobotanical resources. Sacherer (1977, 1979) has elucidated the vital connection between the flora and spirituality in the consciousness of Rolwaling Sherpas. These plants include those with application as medicinal herbs, poisons, foods, dyes, incense, forage, fertilizer, and handicrafts, and many could have economic value if they were collected (in a sustainable manner) or cultivated: locally, they could serve the needs of the residents, and they could also be sold to tourists. HMG has long been interested in promoting the identification and exploitation of such resources, and there are many INGOs and pharmaceutical enterprises that would likely be interested in assisting the project. Clearly, such development would both enhance cultural self-esteem and also reinforce the perception of Rolwaling as a sacred valley. Fortunately, an initiative with similar aims is being promoted by the Tengboche Development Project, and, as mentioned above, the project manager and the Tibetan herbalist at Namche are both eager to assist in the application of their methods in the valley next doorreproduction of the tourist attraction” (1976).

    Three years ago a flood severely damaged the stupa at Beding. Lamas and residents alike are determined to rebuild this stupa and another at Na. We suggested a third project: a collaborative effort involving local people and tourists. The proposal is to design an extravagantly large stupa that would be constructed on a ridge overlooking Tsho Rolpa, which for years has threatened the valley with a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF). It would be announced that tourists are invited to participate in this effort, to be inaugurated in 2002 in conjunction with the UN-declared International Year of Mountains and International Year of Ecotourism. Trekkers would go to the monastery at Na, make a monetary contribution and inscribe their names in the donor log, and then be guided to the construction site, where they would place stones according to the architect's plan. Such an ambitious monument would evidently take years to complete, but would provide a continuing and fitting goal for trekkers. It would also provide an opportunity for the manufacture and sale of souvenir tee-shirts and miniature replicas, thus fulfilling MacCannell's “fourth level of tourism development:

    Rolwaling's assets are, of course, not limited to the sacred. A significant opportunity may be found in the geographical factors which have been seen as limiting constraints. It is true that Rolwaling lacks an Everest, but many trekkers would be interested in an alternative route of egress from Khumbu, one which would allow them to avoid retracing their steps and also to avoid the relatively expensive and overbooked flights from Lukla. (As noted above, Rolwaling is only a few days' walk from the road at Dolakha or Barabise, from which one can take the bus to Kathmandu for less than three dollars.) At the same time, this alternative would relieve some of the pressure on Khumbu facilities, which typically experience near gridlock in high season. The route up the Thame Valley and across Tashi Laptsa pass, however, has been perceived as too difficult for most independent trekkers. On the other hand, if more tourists could conveniently undertake this trek, it would not only assist in the development of the poorer communities on the Thame side but also meet the thirst for challenge and adventure that motivates increasing numbers of trekkers. In most cases, Khumbu trekkers have already visited Kala Pattar and/or Gokyo, and are therefore well acclimated. The problem has been that the route requires camping and climbing equipment, as well as a guide and porters; these are generally available only through outfitters located in Kathmandu. Very few independent Everest trekkers wish to hire a team for their entire Khumbu trek, much less for the Jiri walk-in, both of which are straightforward and require no special equipment or assistance. The solution is to establish an agency in Beding or Na, with a branch in Thame; this agency could offer a shuttle service, with teams leaving Rolwaling every Tuesday (for instance) and returning from Thame on Sunday. If all the equipment and the personnel were locally available, the cost would be reduced, and trekkers could conveniently make the decision to take this route even on the spur of the moment.

    Another proposal, one which would tie in nicely with the Tashi Laptsa shuttle service, is to establish a climbing school for tourists. If the gear and the instruction were available in situ, trekkers could opt to prolong their stay and get some experience in technical climbing. They would then, of course, be even better equipped for Tashi Laptsa; and virtually all of the revenue would remain in Rolwaling.


    Rolwaling may be poor and undeveloped, but it is not a basket case. If the arbitrary and currently unenforceable requirement of a trekking peak permit were removed, independent trekkers could easily be attracted to this relatively pristine destination.


    1"Without external financial and logistical assistance, the development of the tourism infrastructure seems almost impossible. The local people in Bhote Kosi and Rolwaling Valleys are more or less waiting for outside support" (Inmann and Luger 1998). Ironically, Eco Himal is well-aware that is only the restricted access which has impeded Rolwaling's residents from developing tourism on their own:
    …As agencies could more or less determine the prices themselves in places that were not officially declared trekking areas, they showed little interest in seeing the area opened up for individual tourism. They offered full service tours, which meant that everything was organized in and brought from Kathandu, including the crew. The local inhabitants hardly benefited at all from this form of tourism, except for selling extra food to the groups or occasionally providing a place to sleep. This is why no tourist infrastructure developed: so few tourists came to the area that it was not worth investing in infrastructure, and there was no prospect of earning any additional income (Inmann 2000).

    2"Rolwaling/Oeko Himal is a new product with a particular image of adventure, which stands out against other products…." (Inmann and Luger 1998) Again,

    To stress the ecological aspect of the product, the marketing strategy must focus on the core of the product… as well as the tourist infrastructure… and travel care and assistance, accommodation, catering, information and services, etc. Only in this way can a high-quality tourism product, 'Rolwaling/Oeko Himal' become a symbol for a standardized peformance of constantly high ecological quality and thus a unique selling proposition (Inmann and Luger 1998).

    Bernbaum, Edwin. 1990. Sacred Mountains of the World. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

    Inman K, and K. Luger. 1998. Ecotourism and Village Development: The Eco Himal Strategy for Sustainable Tourism. In East P., K. Luger, and K. Inmann (eds.) Sustainability in Mountain Tourism: Perspectives for the Himalayan Countries. Delhi: Book Faith India, and Innsbruck-Vienna: Studienverlag, pp. 289-312.

    Ives, Jack D. 1986. Glacial Lake Outburst Floods and Risk Engineering in the Himalaya. Kathmandu: International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.

    Luger K., P. East, and K. Inmann. 2000. Himalayan Tourism on the Sustainable Trail. In Thapa RP and J. Baaden (eds.) Nepal: Myths and Realities. Delhi: Book Faith India, pp. 119-138.

    MacCannell, Dean. 1976. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Schocken Books.

    Odell M. J., W. B. Lama. 1998. In P. East, K. Luger, and K. Inmann (eds.) Sustainability in Mountain Tourism: Perspectives for the Himalayan Countries. Delhi: Book Faith India, and Innsbruck-Vienna: Studienverlag, pp. 191-211.

    Sacherer J. 1977. The Sherpas of Rolwaling Valley, North Nepal: A Study in Cultural Ecology. Ph.D. dissertation submitted to the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Paris. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan.

    -------. 1979. The High Altitude Ethnobotany of the Rolwaling Sherpas. Contributions to Nepalese Studies, Vol. VI, No 2. Kirtipur, Nepal: CNAS, Tribhuvan University.

    Zangbu, N. T., and K. Klatzel 1995. Stories and Customs of the Sherpas. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point.

    This essay will appear in the Proceedings of the International Symposium on the Himalayan Environments: Mountain Sciences and Ecotourism/Biodiversity, due out in May, 2001. For more information, contact the authors: