• Responsible Tourism
  • 15 April, 2024

Sustainable Tourism in Nepal: Inside the Mind of Shiva Dhakal

Sustainable Tourism in Nepal: Inside the Mind of Shiva Dhakal
Shiva Dhakal speaks to hosts and visitors in Kirtipur. Photo by Shashanka Chitrakar

In the misty hills of Nepal is a warm and loving family of 22 individuals. This constellation of grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins spends every moment of the day together, sleeping under the same roof, and eating from the same kitchen. The depth of the care and sympathy these individuals have for each other is imprinted into the impressionable minds of the children of this family, marking their personality forever. One of these kids is Shiva Dhakal, who credits his sensibility towards family and community dynamics to the large family he was born into. It comes to no surprise that Mr.Dhakal would grow up to become a visionary for the development of local Nepali communities in relation to the sustainable tourism sector in Nepal. Today he is renowned for having established Royal Mountain Travel in 2005, and subsequently Community Homestay Network (CHN) in 2017, along with other businesses such as Avata, a yoga and relaxation center, two boutique hotels in Kathmandu Valley and Inside Himalayas, a magazine focused on giving a platform to the voices of the travelers in Nepal. Seeing the successful businessman and social entrepreneur that he is today it is hard to imagine the self-forged path that brought him to the position in which he is today. 

Origins and Observations

Having started his career at the tender age of 17, Mr. Dhakal’s innovative ideas began to take shape in his mind by the time he was in his early twenties. His very first job was in a little guest house in Thamel, the touristic hub of Kathmandu, where he worked as a young, jack-of-all-trade. Shortly after that, he worked as a staff member in a trekking equipment rental company. Both these jobs put him in close contact with foreign visitors in Nepal and marked the beginning of a long career in this sector. By the time he was 20, he began doing some office work in a trekking agency, and soon, he began guiding groups in what was then called camping treks. In the 90s, this form of trekking became more popular than it is today. Seen as a luxury, this form of trekking meant that the trekkers would carry along a guide to show them the way, one or multiple porters to carry the bags, tents, cooking ingredients, and personal belongings, and there would often be a cook who came along too. The observations made by Mr.Dhakal during this period of his life permanently altered his perception of the tourism sector in Nepal. They inspired him to establish Royal Mountain Travel and CHN. 

“In the 90’s there were thousands of visitors coming to trek in Everest, Annapurna and Langtang regions. We guided many groups there. When camp trekking was the trend, we used to carry every single thing from Kathmandu. We would carry Italian pasta, Italian tomato sauce, bread, a variety of canned items such as tuna, meats, exotic fruits, and we’d carry along some fresh vegetables too. Thinking of it now it seems strange, but it was the norm back then because we were under the impression that these items were luxurious and that this is what our clients expected from us. In order to cater to their need for familiarity and comfort, we would only provide western food, like muesli and cereal for breakfast, canned pineapple and mango as a snack,  pasta with pelati for dinner… The only local products we used to buy were firewood. Along with the fee for the wood, we would pay a small fee to pitch our tent on local grounds and to use the kitchen,” recounts Mr. Dhakal. “We made the observation that even though thousands of people were coming to visit these areas of Nepal, barely any money was going into the pockets of the local communities. The firewood and other fees would barely make up the sum of two dollars. As time went by it seemed increasingly ridiculous to me to be bringing all of these ingredients from the city. I think that the perception back then was that the locals had little to offer, but that was far from the truth. We still had to bring many ingredients from Kathmandu, but we began to buy some fresh things like milk and produce from the locals so that we could decrease the amount of canned goods. At the same time, the trend was slowly shifting from camp trekking to teahouse trekking, where locals began to give accommodation in their tea houses, later turned into lodges. Camp trekking used to be very expensive because the manpower required for it was disproportionate compared to the number of trekkers, tea house trekking on the other hand was much more reasonable in price. We also observed how all the visitors would just go to Annapurna, Langtang and Everest regions, which are indeed very beautiful, but there is so much more to Nepal than these places, and besides for Kathmandu Valley, all the other regions of Nepal would barely see any foreign visitor.”

The Birth and Vision of CHN

These observations came to play in Mr.Dhakal’s attitudes when he founded his own company, Royal Mountain Travel. His main focus was on how local communities could benefit from the flow of tourism in their localities. “Thankfully, the time in which I started my own business coincided with the shift in travel trends and interests. Adventure tourism had always been famous in Nepal, but at that time, cultural tourism was starting to take a stronghold too,” he says. “Our first experiment started in Panauti, where we started a small scale homestay. Back then, we were just starting out, and we weren’t confident in our vision yet. As we educated ourselves on Community-based Tourism, we also analyzed the feedback we got from the hosts and visitors of the community homestay in Panauti. It attracted culture seeking travelers and young backpackers. We realized that the homestay model was a win-win situation for all the stakeholders: the travelers would have an authentic experience of the local community, the hosts would have a greater and more direct economic impact, and I personally found the Goldilocks zone that brought together my skills as a businessman and my vision as a social entrepreneur. In time, as the network of homestays grew in Panauti, we gained the confidence to establish CHN, and expand our business model to other areas of Nepal.”

Sustainable Tourism Nepal
Hospitality in Nepal is rooted in deep respect between host and guest.

Today, CHN has expanded to 36 communities all over the country, impacting 316 households, including 500 women and 1020 individuals who directly and indirectly benefit from the program As of today 8000 foreign visitors have participated in the activities and accommodations facilities offered by CHN. “After seeing all the flow of tourists being funneled into the three main trekking regions, our idea was to find a way to  bring them to all those beautiful and culturally rich areas of Nepal that are not as visited. Along with that, it was our desire to offer the visitors a chance to truly see how the locals live and give them the opportunity to experience the same life for a couple of days. This is when we thought of selling experiences such as cooking and language courses, agriculture and animal husbandry activities, adventures like hiking and biking in the areas surrounding the homestays, wildlife activities, and any other way of integrating with the local culture such as following a person throughout their day and living their same daily routine.”

Community Centered Business Model

All of this takes much effort from the local hosts, but their conviction to the business model makes it all possible. The way CHN runs is by following the 80/20 business model. Mr, Dhakal explains that “when a traveler books a stay or an experience, our office keeps 20% of the revenue, which fuels our operational costs. The remaining 80% goes into the hands of the hosts. That sum is further divided, as 20% goes into a shared community chest, and the remaining 80% is kept by the hosts for their personal expenses. In our experience, the hosts prioritize their children’s education and health expenses before anything else. The shared community fund is an integral part of our business model.

In a community, there are many households that are involved in our program, either by offering accommodation or by offering other services. All of these integrate the shared fund. The community has complete control over how these funds are spent. The locals come together to assess their needs as a community, and thinking especially of how they can further cater to visitors, they decide on what to invest the shared funds on. This is not only integral in developing a community as a tourist destination, but also to foster the feelings of togetherness and collaboration necessary to keep a group of people together and focused on the same goal. The only way in which we play a role in this is by providing various training sessions which educate the way in which they assess their needs and make decisions. We are not an NGO, so we do not spoon feed them. We understand that they are all intelligent people who are fully capable of making viable choices, so our training is mainly focused towards sharing our expertise with them. This means that we mainly show them the lens through which someone working in the tourism sector needs to view their assets, identify their unique selling points, and build in them confidence in their capabilities. We also help them gain familiarity with western standards of hygiene and comfort so that they may be ready to welcome visitors successfully. It is our belief that the locals’ inherent skills are enough to run a successful homestay community, all we do is give them some pointers on what would make them more viable. The main issue that we help them overcome is in their self confidence. At the beginning, it was hard for them to understand that visitors may be interested in them, as they 9. did not see the appeal of their lives and villages. We played a role in helping them understand why visitors may be attracted to them and their lifestyle, which translated to them valuing their culture, traditions, lifestyle and skills more.”

Since CHN is a business operation based on the foundation of social entrepreneurship rather than being an NGO, the main dynamic between them and the local communities they work with is not one of co-dependence. CHN serves as a platform that connects local communities interested in making a livelihood out of tourism related activities, and the tourists themselves. Currently, CHN is partnered with 80 national destination management companies and other international tour operators. Along with CHN’s own website, these companies serve as a bridge between the service providers and the service seekers. With the establishment of the community fund and the training programs, the goal is to incentivise the members of the local communities to take matters in their own hand and become as self reliant as possible, with the only help needed being that of connecting them to the travelers. 

Sustainable Tourism Nepal
Poster of Mr. Dhakal for a United Nations World Tourism Organization event.

Finding Potential Off the Beaten Path

Such an investment of time, energy and money is not for everyone, in fact, CHN is very careful when it comes to deciding which communities to offer their services to, as many factors come into play. First of all, they need to check out the personality of the community as a whole and see how welcoming, friendly, and open minded they are. They also need to have retained elements from their traditional way of life and connection to nature so that they can be marketed in concordance to CHN’s principles. However, even if the potential for these elemental factors is there, logistics come into play. The questions to be asked are, is the road to that location comfortable enough, how much hiking is involved, are there any attractions along the way? There is a great difference between locations in the hilly region and those in the Terai plain lands, and this is a factor that defines the locals’ willingness in participating in the program. In the hilly, the houses are often rather large, and the hosts have enough space to set aside a room especially for their guests. Most family and home activities are done in indoor common spaces, so homes cater for a large number of people.

This means that the hosts can adapt their preexisting home and facilities with relatively low investment. On the other hand, life in the plains mainly happens outdoors, with the homes being one-roomed hut-like structures almost only meant for sleeping and taking refuge from the rain. Every communal activity occurs outside. In this case, the locals have to build a separate hut adjacent to their own for the visitors. This takes up quite a bit of dedication, but it pays off because many visitors prefer having a more separate private space compared to the ones offered in hilly region homes. Investment of some sort is necessary regardless of whether the home is in the hills or in the plains, and people who are not familiar with CHN may be reluctant.

As Mr. Dhakal says, it is the question of did the chicken come first or the egg, “when we approach a community or family and explain the investment that is required, they tell us first to send visitors, and then they will make the necessary adaptations, however, we can not sent the visitors until the facility are up to standard. Thankfully, many people believe in us, and they make the necessary adaptations to come into business. \\Our main cheerleaders are people who used to work with us already, so they were already familiar with our ethics and dedication to work. The first people to follow into our program were former Royal Mountain Travel trekking guides and office staff. For example, we used to have a passionate staff member in our office. After he understood how we operate and the impact of our work, he decided to establish  a homestay in his native village, Narchyang. He involved his whole community in this, and now a total of 10 families are part of the community network. Similarly, one of our tour guides started a homestay in Barauli, and now multiple other initiatives have stemmed from it. It is our main goal to foster independent thinking and initiative taking, and we give our support in whatever way is most appropriate.”

Sustainable Growth and Visions for The Future

The concept of community-based travel, upon which CHN builds its working ethics, relies on the concept of sustainable growth. The image of a trekking guide taking the initiative of opening their own homestay network is a perfect example of this, and it closely mirrors Mr. Dhakal’s own career’s stepping stones. Thinking of the concept of sustainable growth applied to the community as a whole rather than just the individual, CHN’s aim is to address some of the issues caused by the inorganic development of mainstream destinations. When destinations become mainstream, they face the risk of becoming overcrowded, oversaturated with activities that are not true to their original identity, and ultimately the charm of that place can get lost amidst the noise of businesses that try to maximize their revenues without giving a single care towards the environment, and the unique identity of the place and its inhabitants. While this may be a way to achieve quick wealth, it is not sustainable in the long run, as standardization and loss of authenticity will ultimately drive visitors away after the initial surge.

This fenomena can be seen in certain hill top destinations around Kathmandu. They started off as a single hotel in the midst of a forest, overlooking the Himalayas, but have now been completely urbanized, and the view is lost behind a concrete jungle. This type of development might seem good at first glance, but when truly thinking about it, it is apparent that it is not sustainable. In order for a touristic destination to grow sustainably, the model of CHN serves as a good example. After having assessed that the given location is a suitable place for a touristic operation, the growth of that location will be affected by the means and interests of the people living there. First homestays will be established, as per the 80/20 model, part of the revenues will stay with the host family, while the other part will go into the community fund. This fosters a sense of unity as the community will come together and decide on the best way to spend the funds available to them. They could establish a small business that caters to the tourists that visit the homestays, or find more ways for the visitors to pass their time there through creative and unique activities. In the years, this method will ensure that all the operations that are established in the community are mutually beneficial, and they add on to the common vision thelocals have for their community. The problem of overcrowding is tackled as the community will only receive an influx of visitors they can cater to. Not only this, but organic growth keeps the interest of the locals at heart, ensuring that the original charm and beauty does not get suffocated by standardization. 

Sustainable Tourism Nepal
A visitor enjoys a ride with Panauti Bike Station community initiative.

When thinking of long-term sustainable growth, it is impossible not to think of the youth and their involvement. CHN hopes that the repercussions of their incentivising of traditional livelihoods and activities, along with independent thinking can be felt by the youth. A common problem faced by the youth in Nepal is lack of hope when it comes to being financially sufficient by remaining in the country, which is why a staggering number of people turn towards foreign employment in harsh working conditions. For a country to lose its youth is a tragedy, especially if this is caused by feelings of disempowerment and disincentivization.

Many villages of Nepal are faced with the problem of underpopulation due to young adults leaving the country for foreign employment. This means that many traditional livelihoods go unattended, causing further aridity in other fields of employment as a domino effect. Through practices of community/based tourism, it is CHN’s intention to introduce a creative mindset in the young people of Nepal so that they may learn to see opportunity in ways that are new to them.  By showing them how other people may value elements of their life which they may have previously taken for granted, locals, and especially youth, may see fresh career paths unfurl in front of them. By learning how to look at their natural and cultural surroundings, their ways of life and traditions, with the lens of a person involved in the tourism industry, they may realize that it is worthwhile to stay in the country and invest time and energy to try and build something they can call their own. 

The potential to generate new streams of revenue can be born out of the simplest of things. As long as one has the eyes and the spirit to detect that potential, and CHN hopes that their impact on society may lead more people in that direction. By 2025, the goal is to impact a total of 50 communities and create around two-hundred new experiences to offer to visitors. With the vision of having every single visitor who travels across Nepal find their way towards a community or activity involved with CHN, Shiva Dhakal is convinced that Community-Based Tourism will soon become the new mainstream. He has complete trust in the good that will be brought onto Nepali societies as the trends shift away from the current ways of traveling and treating host cultures, to the more holistic and responsible approach offered by Community-Based Tourism. 

Click Here to Download our latest Issue- 8 Community Tourism Issue https://www.insidehimalayas.com/emagazines/issue-8-2024/

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