First Accessible Trekking Trail in Asia Opens in Kaski

Text by Jackie Taylor

“When some say adversity, I say opportunity. Know and accept yourself for who you are. Live like you will die tomorrow and dream like you will live forever,” Corporal Hari Budha Magar, Gurkha, Afghanistan war veteran and double amputee.

According to studies, American adults with disabilities or reduced mobility spend an average of $13.6 billion a year on travel (Dr Scott Rains, U.S. expert on disability issues). In Australia 11 percent (or 8 billion) of tourism expenditure is attributable to those with disabilities.

That’s a huge market which is currently untapped in Nepal, but could accessible tourism work in Nepal? Certainly, Pankaj Pradhananga of Four Seasons Travel thought so, when in 2014 he first discussed the idea with Suman Timsina of the International Development Institute (IDI), a consultancy company focussing on capacity development projects in developing countries, and based in Washington, D.C.

From small acorns big trees grow, and like the acorn, the idea of accessible tourism in Nepal started to sprout when in 2015 the Federation of Nepalese Chamber of Commerce & Industries (FNCCI) and the American Embassy came on board and joined IDI for the first seminar on accessibility. Following that, a 2016 trip entitled “Wounded Heroes” took place from Kathmandu to Poon Hill and Chitwan, involving mainly American veterans and police with amputations, PTSD, and spinal injuries. This proved there is an interest amongst disabled tourists. At this stage, the Nepal Tourism Board became interested, as did disability organizations like the National Federation of the Disabled Nepal (NFDN) through their Country Coordinator Sagar Prasai, who is himself wheelchair bound. So, the stage was set for what was to come.

Welcome to Shangri-La

This interest from NTB, in particular, meant that the seminar being planned for March of this year snowballed into a full scale conference. Coming on board were airlines and other sponsors, such as the Center for Independent Living or CIL (Nepal), UNDP, and the former U.S. ambassador to Nepal, currently the mayor of Philadelphia, Mr. Scott DeLisi. Thus, the International Conference on Accessible Adventure (ICAA) was born.

Held from March 29 to 31 in Shangri-La in Pokhara, ICAA focused on international best practices for inclusive tourism for ‘slow walker’ seniors and those with mobile disabilities with the aim of leading to improved tourism facilities, services, and marketing to attract a new segment of visitors to Nepal while creating new opportunities for Nepal’s disabled in terms of employment and visibility. Over 150 people participated in the conference, coming from U.S.A., Europe, and Asia.

“Through this conference, we want to find the right partners and the appropriate funding to make accessible adventure strategic planning our main focus for the next two years,” said Mr. John Heather, USAID/ UN, and consultant with the International Development Institute (IDI). “We believe the work of the past two years in setting the stage for this conference will lead to the next two years of shaping Nepal’s tourism industry to be Asia’s leader in accessible adventure. Our vision is to make Pokhara the model accessible tourism destination for Nepal, with the lessons learned here packaged for application throughout the rest of the country.”

Keynote speaker Corporal Hari Budha Magar, a Gurkha war veteran who lost both his legs in an IED explosion while serving in Afghanistan, stated he hasn’t let his disability stop him from traveling and participating in adventure activities. “I have kayaked, skied, skydived, and climbed mountains all over the world after my injury,” he said. Magar declared his ‘inspiration and perspiration’ odyssey to be the first double above-knee amputee attempt of Mt. Everest as part of his ‘Conquering Dreams’ tour, in 2019. With any luck, his dream will be achieved, as during the Mayors’ Forum section of the conference, Biratnagar’s mayor, Bhim Parajuli, announced financial support to both Magar and Amit KC, who is visually impaired, for their Everest expedition in 2019.

The Mayors’ Forum was one of four panel discussions that took place during the conference, which looked at three main points—Nepal’s challenges to accessible tourism, focusing on behavior, attitude, and infrastructure; the need in change of attitude and stereotypes, and Nepal as an accessible destination, focusing on creating a common space to deal with attitudes towards promoting an accessible environment.

“We are not doing social work here, neither are we doing advocacy for disabled rights. Rather, we are looking at the business opportunities for tourism operators, which can include dignity for all disabled people, and which can offer employment opportunities to disabled Nepalis. People with disabilities want access to the same opportunities as the rest of us, and they want to be treated with the same level of respect and dignity,” said Timsina of IDI. “Also, we should remember those who are coming to Nepal are not your average disabled person; they are adventurous, with a strong heart and mind. However, Renaud Meyer, UNDP Country Director, is also not wrong when he identified inclusive tourism as both a human rights issue and an opportunity for economic development in Nepal.”

Signposting the Way Forward

There were four main outcomes of the conference; firstly, it is proposed this conference be held every two years in Nepal. Secondly, the organizers are now working with Hotel Association Nepal on access ramps and accessible rooms in hotels. This is a follow-up from a survey carried out earlier by IDI on accessibility in hotels in Nepal. At that time, they found only the Hyatt Hotel had wheelchair access. Additionally, March 30 will now be known as Access to All Tourism Day in Nepal. “The objective of declaring this day is to remind us to be focused on these issues and activities,” said Deepak Joshi, CEO of Nepal Tourism Board.

And finally, and most interestingly perhaps, NTB will ensure there are monthly events on the new accessible trekking route to highlight its presence and use.

First Accessible Trekking Route in Asia

Prior to the conference, a trekking route of 1.24 km was created especially for wheelchair-bound people and those requiring assistance when walking. Under the responsibility of NTB, this trekking route is the first accessible trekking trail, reportedly, in Asia, and takes in panoramic views of Mt. Dhaulagiri, across Mt. Annapurna to Mt. Manaslu. Situated at Kaskikot, 9 km from Sarangkot, Kaski district, this route has been made to international standard, including a disabled-friendly toilet midway.

With so much support and interest from organizations within Nepal, and with high interest among international agencies, it is now up to the tourism sector, headed by NTB, to keep the momentum going. Already, it has been proved through the Wounded Heroes tour that, with some thought and planning, Nepal can be accessible to those who are physically challenged. Mental barriers among tourism operators in Nepal have perhaps started to break down through the likes of this conference, as they realize that this is a huge untapped market for the country. And, with people such as local mayors being on board with regard to access for all, not just tourists, this could be the start of something unique.

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