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Nepal's Upper Mustang sees tourism boom

Visitors flock to former seat of Tibetan kingdom for festivals and taste of Buddhist culture near China border.

Last updated: 13 Jun 2014 12:39
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There has been a influx of tourists with 3,344 visiting in 2013 compared to 483 in 1992 [Ramyata Limbu/ Al Jazeera]

Lo Manthang, Nepal - Life has never been better for Yangzom Bista. For this spritely 70-year-old, business is booming in the ancient walled city of Lo Manthang near the Nepal-China border - once the seat of governance of Upper Mustang region or the former Tibetan Kingdom of Lo, it is now a major tourist hub.

Rooms at this time of the year are scarce since the dozen existing hotels are packed with tourists attending the annual Tenchi festival, which occurs at the end of May. During the three days of festivities, monks pray, dance and conduct age-old Buddhist rituals to ward off evil spirits, ensure a good harvest, and to bring prosperity to surrounding region. The presence of the ageing former Mustangi Raja Jigmi Palbar Bista this year has heightened tourists’ anticipation.

So to meet the rising demand, Yangzom earns extra income from home stay guests. Her older daughter manages a lodge nearby while another daughter runs a souvenir shop in the heart of the city.

"Times have changed," said Yangzom as she potters around her kitchen preparing butter tea for several Nepalese artists she’s hosting at home. "Life is much easier now."

Closed to foreigners before 1992, this spectacularly vast, arid and wind swept corner of the Himalayan nation of Nepal, ranks among the top tourism destinations in the world.

Ancient caves, monasteries and archaeological sites in the Upper Mustang on Nepal’s northwest frontier bordering China have seen an influx of tourists with 3,344 visiting in 2013 compared to 483 in 1992

Upper Mustang was once a base for Khampa guerrillas’ resistance against China’s exaction of full control over Tibet. According to a tourism brochure, it "remains one of few areas in Tibet’s original sphere of influence where Tibetan culture continues to survive".

Since the early 1990s, the American Himalayan Foundation has been supporting the renovation and rehabilitation of monasteries and archaeological sites as old as 1,000 years.

Chimmi Bista, Yangzom's older daughter, 27, runs the souvenir shop, one of several stores that line the cobbled street just outside the royal palace. She buys most of the stuff such as traditional Buddhist paintings and statues and coral jewelry during her winter sojourns to the Nepali capital, Kathmandu, when most of the population descends to the lowlands to escape the cold.

"I make a good profit and tourists are happy to take home souvenirs that remind them of their trip. They hold sentimental value," Chimmi said.

Dressed in a bakkhu, the long traditional tunic worn by women, Chimmi’s had little schooling but she managed to speak enough English. She appears to be more adept at making a quick sale rather than harvesting potatoes, barley and buckwheat and herding and selling livestock down south - an important source of cash income for the local population.

The benefits of tourism seem to have also trickled down to the rest of Yangzom's family. Her son is now based in the US and her eldest granddaughter recently completed high school, the first female in the family to do so, and is considering a move to Kathmandu for further studies. 

No culture, no tourism

During the day, foreign and domestic tourists attend Tenchi festivities in a paved courtyard adjacent to the palace. They appear to outnumber locals, who can be seen doing brisk business in hotels, eateries, souvenir shops, general stores, and cafes advertising Italian coffee.

At night, locals from surrounding villages flock to the courtyard to watch school children perform plays, cultural songs and dances.

Rooms at this time of the year are scarce since the dozen existing hotels are packed with tourists [Ramyata Limbu/ Al Jazeera]

Religion plays an integral part in life here and Tibet spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is a revered figure. Films featuring the Dalai Lama that propagate principles of Buddhism and non-violence are screened with older folks attending in large numbers. 

"Given the history of the area, the strategic interests of countries in past and present, we have learnt to balance relations so that it benefits the region," Jigme Singi Palbar Bista, the former crown prince of Upper Mustang, told Al Jazeera.

"Since Nepal became a republic the royal family of Mustang no longer has state responsibilities," he added. "There’s public affection for us and expectations too so we strive to secure the people’s best interests."

The former crown prince now operates a tour company and is building a resort in the city’s outskirts to cater to demands for high-end tourist accommodation. A family foundation supports Tibetan language classes in local government schools where subjects are otherwise taught in the local Nepali language.

Local youth are encouraged to learn traditional music, art and to wear local attire, although the bulk milling around Lo Manthang’s public square appear more comfortable in jeans and sneakers. 

"There’s no tourism if there’s no culture," Jigme said. 

Lo Manthang, once only accessible by foot, or mule is now connecting with the rest of the country by road. It has eased the transportation of goods and people, reduced prices of supplies, and allowed quicker access to medical aid. In Chosar, famous for its caves and an hour’s drive from the Chinese border, an ambulance donated by the Indian government is on standby to ferry people to the nearest Nepali health facility in case of medical emergencies.

"In the past it took mule trains nine to twelve days to transport supplies from the big markets," says Laxmi Gurung, 40, who runs a small lodge and store in Thingkar, an hour’s walk north of Lo Manthang and the site of the former royal family’s crumbling summer palace. "Goods arrive in two days by road."

There are concerns that the road, operational since the past ten months, will discourage tourists who come here for adventure trekking. The local government along with Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) and tourism entrepreneurs are working on a master plan for an alternative trekking route that would bypass the road and encompass more villages along the way.

But conservationists such as Santosh Sherchan said that people living in far flung areas still don’t benefit from the tourism boom. 

"Only 20 percent of the population benefits directly from tourism," Sherchan, head of ACAP in Upper Mustang, told Al Jazeera. “Diversifying economic benefits among the local population and ensuring that out flung villages have a stake in the tourism pie is a major challenge."

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