South Asia

How Eurocentrism Remains Deeply Entrenched in Nepali Tourism

Tourist activities in Nepal are not only threatening indigenous lifestyles, but also eliminating local cultures and histories.

Recently, Prime Minister of Nepal K.P. Sharma Oli and his government decided to champion the idea of ‘Samriddhi’ by organising the third edition of the Nepal Investment Summit in Kathmandu and insisting that Nepal is a virgin land for investment. Although Nepal has to curb corruption before wooing any investors, the government might also need to monitor and regulate any foreign, including tourist, activities that may further threaten indigenous lifestyles.

In the context of a neoliberal, crony capitalist state nestled in the Himalayas, the impact of tourists’ intrusion – and their ego-laden acts of reproducing colonial relations of production – on borderland communities and their local history has not been adequately addressed. One, therefore, finds it hard to neglect the debate around colonial culture present even today. Rejecting the contribution of the locals in favour of foreigners who are rather keen to promote their stakes is perfectly illustrated by the proposed renaming of the Schaller trail in Dolpo.

The Dolpo are one of the Himalayan borderland communities located within the northern region of Nepal. Geographically, the region shares borders with Tibet and China. The heterogeneous community, scattered across the area, has been rapidly changing, impacted by various socio-cultural, economic and political challenges. The movement of foreigners across the region, where the Himalayan communities have lived for many years, is also one of the challenges faced by the Dolpo, especially when such mobility attempts to threaten the indigenous way of life.

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Proposing to name a local route as the ‘Schaller trail’ by a foreigner in Dolpo is symbolic of Eurocentric authority. Eurocentrism broadly, as a hegemonic ideology, produces Western moral and intellectual authority and rarely allows any native and ecological abilities the time and space to flourish.

A Frenchman, who claims to have travelled Dolpo more than any other tourist, recently proposed renaming one section of a local trail that connects both the Dho and Saldang, villages of Dolpo. Besides writing a blog about the trail, Grobel decided to share his feat on social media. His proposal was resisted by many.

Pemma Wangchen, a present ward chairperson from Dolpo argued against it and said, “I know George Schaller, but that doesn’t mean he has to leave his name inscribed for the trail. That does not reflect service or achievement, but rather is a selfish move. We would rather name it the Caravan Trial or Shey-Phuksundo Trail. We would name it after any of the school sponsors who have planted thousands of educational and health seeds”.  

Basudha Gurung, an independent development consultant said, “He has no right to do so. It’s for the locals to name this trail anyway, and not the foreigner who comes for an occasional visit!” Likewise Rukshana Kapali, a blogger and activist stressed, “this is so derogatory and so offensive to local people. On one hand, we already face forced assimilation in ‘Nepali language names’ and again Western English speakers add to this. This is just an endorsement of supremacy and disrespect to the local people!”

Eurocentrism, in this case, has manifested, not only in the form of the negation of indigenous names and heritage, but also in the lack of proper consultation with many local inhabitants who have been living across the Himalayas before foreigners had ‘discovered’ communities like Dolpo.

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Possibly cautious about such effects induced by Eurocentrism, Professor Dean MacCannell, in his classical ethnographic book – The Tourist (1976) – argues that “the tourist was really an early postmodern figure, alienated but seeking fulfilment in his own alienation – nomadic, placeless, a kind of subjectivity without spirit, a “dead subject”.

Often, the lack of proper unity amongst locals to resist such moves, due to structural exclusion and continued symbolic violence implemented by the state, only aids foreigners in championing their ‘white man’s burden’. Can Eurocentrism masked under corporal nobility ever be properly identified?

For the bourgeois, these borderland often reflect western hubris and oriental exoticisation like ‘Shangri-la’ – white men who come to rescue and civilise those ‘savages’. Their moral ambivalence symbolically, culturally and materially aids them, at the expense of the indigenous locals and their culture.

When the Nepal government and its tourism departments, such as the Nepal Tourism Board, Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal and Dolpa District Department Forest Office, have limited presence, foreigners’ disturbing acts of appropriation go unchecked. On the other hand, such hegemonic acts also become a part of the assimilation practices largely appropriated by the state itself.

These ‘bikas’ (development) practices favour cultural, spatial and linguistic hierarchy across native communities. Since the boom of the tourism industry around the 1950s, many indigenous names were largely replaced by Hindu or Khas-Nepali names. 

Chomolungma, which became ‘Sagarmatha’ and later ‘Mt. Everest’, epitomises the domination exercised by both the state and the West. Renaming the 40-metre route climb of Mount Everest as ‘Hillary steps’ is yet another example.

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One can imagine at least a few Sherpas resisting the renaming of Chomolungma and its significant parts as it holds socio-cultural and religious significance for their communities. The Nepali government, mainly led by Caste Hill Hindu Male Elite, and subsequent foreign tourists and trekkers have failed to recognise indigenous perspectives.

For several foreigners and mountaineers, as brilliantly demonstrated by Professor Mark Liechty in Far Out: Countercultural Seekers and the Tourist Encounter in Nepal, Mt. Everest became “a powerful symbol of ultimate goals” representing “an extreme that in the modern Western imagination, inspires less reverence or awe than desire to climb, be near, or even just see the earth’s greatest extremity”.

Tashi Tewa is from Dolpo, Nepal and currently pursuing a PhD in Anthropology at Washington University.