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Dispatch: A Himalayan Dilemma

In January of this year, I contacted Rajeev Shrestha, a friend in Kathmandu who runs a travel agency called Wayfarers, to ask him whether it was safe to travel in Nepal. For some time, I had wanted to research an article there about the so-called Maoist insurgency: it had claimed 11,000 lives in less than a decade and appeared to be undermining not only Nepal's tourist industry but also its new and fragile democracy.

Rajeev wrote to warn me that frequent shoot-outs between Maoist insurgents and the army had made traveling outside Kathmandu dangerous. He added that the fall of 2004 had been the worst on record for the tourism industry. A day after I read Rajeev's message, King Gyanendra dismissed the cabinet, suspended civil liberties, and assumed control of the army and police. Flights heading toward Kathmandu airport were turned away. With all telephone and Internet lines down, Nepal was suddenly cut off from the world in a way that no longer seemed possible in the age of globalization. Rajeev's silence was eloquent: things, it seemed to say, can't get any worse.

For much of the past few decades, Nepal has been best known for its extraordinarily varied and beautiful landscape. Its rivers, gorges, valleys, and forests suggested every kind of travel fantasy: trekking, mountaineering, fishing, paragliding, bungee jumping, rafting, biking, jungle safaris. The Buddha was born in the country's southern plains. Its Himalayan ranges hold 8 of the 10 highest mountains in the world, including Mount Everest.

The country is also one of the world's poorest, with 38 percent of its more than 26 million people living below the poverty line. Seventy-six percent of its population depends on agriculture for a living. There is no manufacturing industry worth the name. Imported goods from neighboring India and China dominate Nepalese shops.

Tourism, along with foreign aid, supports much of the economy. But the country has been a less attractive destination since 1996, when a radical left-wing party called the Nepal Communist Party (Maoist), now known simply as the Maoists, launched a People's War against the government, aiming to abolish Nepal's "feudal autocracy."

According to the U.S. State Department, the Maoists are a terrorist organization. The Maoists themselves encourage such easy labeling by their rhetoric and actions. In 1995, their chief ideologue, Baburam Bhattarai, declared, "We are sure we will hoist the hammer and sickle atop Mount Everest one day." In the past nine years, they have targeted army barracks, police stations, bridges, schools, and post offices. Human rights activists have accused them of murdering their political opponents. Still, they are supported by many Nepalese, and their popularity, some years after Communism was written off in much of the world, hints at how extreme political organizations will continue to carry the burden of the pain of people in poor, premodern societies.

For the first half of the 20th century, Nepal was effectively closed to outsiders. A few aristocratic families owned most of the arable land.Since 1951, when the country first opened itself to the world, tourism and foreign aid have largely enriched the old elite and done little to improve the circumstances of people living in the overpopulated countryside.

When growing social tensions finally erupted in pro-democracy protests in early 1990, Nepal had its own version of a velvet revolution. It adopted a new constitution that established a multiparty democracy and ended nearly 30 years of absolute monarchy. Although the king, who had dominated Nepal's politics, remained the head of the Nepalese state, he now had to defer to a parliament.

But democracy awakened heady expectations only to bitterly thwart them. Governments have been unstable and short-lived. The new elite of politicians has proved to be as self-serving as the old feudal one. Perhaps the soil for democracy was always unpromising here: a bewilderingly diverse multi ethnic population, severe economic disparities, and a political culture infected by decades of palace intrigues, nepotism, and corruption.

Last year, when I visited Kathmandu, the government appeared to have lost control over much of Nepal. Confined initially to the remote mountain regions, the Maoists seemed now to rule large parts of the country, collecting taxes and dispensing harsh justice to criminals. They also declared and enforced strikes almost every day. A long list of Maoist-led strikes hung at the reception desk of my hotel. The streets of Kathmandu were mostly deserted on strike days. I had to travel to the airport in a van with hidden license plates, flying a large banner with the word TOURIST written on it.

Such precautions may have been unnecessary. In 2002, Baburam Bhattarai had written an open letter to travelers, assuring them that they were not targets of the insurgency. But he went on to warn foreigners not to patronize establishments owned by the "arch-reactionary royal family and their close courtiers." He also advised them "not to venture into areas where active fighting is going on." Travelers were, however, "most welcome into the revolutionary base areas, which are firmly under the control of the revolutionary forces." I ventured into the "revolutionary base areas" but saw no revolutionary forces, and the most menacing people on the road were the Nepalese soldiers at numerous checkpoints—most of them teenage boys with fingers too tightly wrapped around triggers.

At the town of Dhulikhel, whose carved wooden buildings evoke those of a medieval Hindu village, I had lunch in the empty restaurant of the Hotel Sun 'n' Snow. In the also empty bar, the managing director, B. P. Shrestha, sat in one corner. Shrestha assured me that the Maoists had not affected his business at all. But the rooms, all beautifully designed, with panoramic views of the Himalayas—and available at a great discount—lay resoundingly vacant. This was also true at many of the other hotels I visited in the Kathmandu Valley.

Government officials I met in Kathmandu put up a brave front. In his well-appointed office, Tek Bahadur Dangi, CEO of the Nepal Tourism Board, produced an array of charts and statistics to prove that the Maoists had not deterred foreign tourists from entering Nepal. According to him, there had been a 13 percent rise in tourist traffic so far in 2004. He had personally met American and European tourists who claimed that they felt safer in Nepal than in their homelands. Indian travelers, who make up a third of all foreign visitors, continued to visit Hindu pilgrimage sites. Dangi also told me of the potential of Chinese tourists, who could now fly direct to Kathmandu from Chengdu.

In February of this year, after King Gyanendra's coup, I saw Dangi quoted in the Indian press. Many travelers had canceled their bookings after learning of the coup and of government advisories warning against inessential travel to Nepal. However, Dangi insisted that "life in Nepal has become more peaceful."

This seemed at least superficially true when I visited the following month. There were no strikes. But soldiers with machine guns stood at major street crossings in Kathmandu, and barbed-wire checkpoints held up traffic on the road to Pokhara, the gateway to the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal's busiest trekking route.

The oppressive security presence diminished only after I left the main highway out of Kathmandu. It became clear that the Maoists ruled here, if by default. I met a retired army captain who owned a hotel in Ghorepani, a popular stop on the Annapurna trail. Just four days earlier, he told me, Maoist guerrillas had collected about 300,000 rupees ($4,500) from local hoteliers in his region—anyone who refused to pay up faced the threat of attack. In May, Maoists did assault a hotel in Pokhara with crude bombs, injuring two waiters.

The Maoists still haven't targeted visitors, preferring to collect taxes from them on hiking trails. Some Western tourists, the hotel owner said, even seek the thrill of meeting flesh- and-blood Maoist guerrillas. But guerrilla spotting is unlikely to shore up Nepal's flagging tourism industry. Only 112,000 people visited in the first six months of this year, down 25 percent from the same period last year. The figures may well remain bleak as violence continues: in June, in the biggest such attack since the start of the insurgency, the Maoists blew up a passenger bus, killing dozens.

Nevertheless, many Nepalese I've spoken with endorse their Tourism Board's optimism. Rajeev said he was happy to see the king dismiss corrupt and inefficient politicians and impose some order. Democracy, he said, was merely an abstract and irrelevant principle when survival was at stake. It isn't just travel agents, but also journalists, who are now encouraging travelers to come to Nepal. On United We Blog, a popular Nepalese pro-democracy blog in English, one potential visitor is advised not to cancel his trip because it will make the Nepalese "even poorer." "Locals," the blog says, "have nothing to do with Maoist rebellion. They are ready to heartily welcome tourists and trekkers like you."

Nepal may be helped by the fact that many travelers are ultimately more concerned about their own safety and security than about the political realities of the places they visit. This in part explains the strength of tourism in such undemocratic yet stable countries as Burma and Syria—and why relatively few European and American travelers now visit Zimbabwe, where the autocratic regime has made the country less, rather than more, secure. It is possible that as the military impasse between the Maoists and the army grows deeper, a kind of peace will return to Nepal. The Nepalese are unlikely to complain much if the lull proves long enough to rebuild tourism, if not democracy.

PANKAJ MISCHRA's latest book is An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

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