Biodiversity conservation and the impacts of nature-based tourism in the Annapurna Conservation Area

A majority of tourists arriving in Nepal visit its 20 protected areas (Pas) -- national park, wildlife reserve, conservation area, and hunting reserve. PAs and their surroundings receive about 60 percent of all international visitors to the country with areas such as the Annapurna Conservation Area, Chitwan National Park, and Sagarmatha National Park playing important roles in development of nature-based tourism in the country. But despite Nepal’s rich natural and cultural endowments, tourist spending is very low -- an average of only $44 per day in 2018, compared to a regional average of $100-150. 

Tourist expenditure on the way to the park and in communities adjacent to or within the area can be significant, leading to increased incomes, poverty reduction, and opportunities for vertical advancement. Tourism also assists in protecting the resources on which it is based through the generation of revenue. This provides a powerful economic justification for conserving biological resources, particularly in protected areas. However, there are other roles that tourism plays, which are often overshadowed by its obvious economic role, including social and environmental impacts – some of which are considered negative, others positive, and some neutral.

Visitor use of PAs can threaten their conservation values. Therefore, a balanced interaction between visitors, parks, and local communities – or between biophysical resources and people – is essential to provide mutual benefits to all. Such a balance is also considered important to strengthen the conservation capacity of the park authority, while at the same time influencing local attitudes toward conservation.

However, the recent COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on socioeconomic activities, including tourism. The number of international visitors collapsed from March 2020 as a result of the outbreak, resulting in a sharp decline in visitors and losses of about $460 billion, according to UNWTO. Neither tourism operators nor visitors have since developed enough confidence to resume travel.

Nature-based tourism in the Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA)

The Annapurna Conservation Area (ACA) is Nepal’s largest protected area, covering 7,629 square kilometres. It is located in the hills and mountains of west-central Nepal, covering five districts, bounded to the north by the dry alpine deserts of Dolpo and Tibet, to the west by the Dhaulagiri Himal and the Kaligandaki Valley, to the east by the Marshyangdi Valley, and to the south by the valleys and foothills surrounding Pokhara.

ACA is well known both nationally and internationally for its scenic beauty, unique ecology, and rich cultural heritage. Some of the world’s highest mountains including Annapurna Himalaya range and the deepest river valley the Kaligandaki Valley in the world lie within ACA. Rich in freshwater resources, home to a great variety of flora and fauna, a living museum for the blend of culture as well as a number of biodiversity hot spots, ACA offers unique nature-based tourism opportunities for the development of the area itself, as well as for surrounding lowland areas.

Figure : Annapurna Conservation Area elevation zones

ACA is the most popular trekking destination in the Nepali Himalayas, receiving more than 180,000 international visitors in 2018. Tourism development and management in ACA are considered good examples of ecotourism. Two major types of trekkers, organised groups and independent trekkers, visit the area, as well as mountaineering groups. Tourism data indicates an increasing trend in the annual number of visitors to ACA. However, there has been a sharp decline in the number of visitors since the COVID-19 pandemic.

ACA was created partly in order to alleviate environmental degradation linked to trekking tourism by managing conservation and development. The sustainable development of tourism is one of the principal goals of ACA management. Tourism management in ACA is globally considered a good example of community involvement. Moreover, the revenue from tourism in the area has helped restore degraded features of the ACA’s natural and cultural environment.

Tourism management activities in Annapurna Conservation Area

Nature-based tourism in ACA is directly contributing to effective conservation and sustainable rural development. More than 1,000 local teashops, lodges, and hotels in the area directly benefit from tourism. However, there are challenges in the development and management of nature-based tourism in ACA. The growing aspirations of local communities for infrastructure, particularly roads, might significantly transform the modality of nature-based tourism in the region.

Meaningful participation of local communities in the tourism value-chain has long been encouraged through local-level institutions such as Tourism Management sub-Committees (TMsCs) and mothers’ group.  TMsCs develop local policies regarding tourism, including a policy to reduce firewood use. Moreover, TMsCs are responsible for improving the quality and standard of their facilities and services, standardising and monitoring their rates, and preparing menus. TMsCs and mothers’ group also look after the security and safety of tourists in their area. At present, TMsCs are seeking guidance and support to maintain health and safety standards in the present COVID-19 situation.

Capacity enhancement of local lodge operators and tourism entrepreneurs through various training and workshop is regularly provided in order to enhance the service quality. Accommodation facilities, food quality and variety, sanitation and hygiene, waste management, spoken English, hospitality, and so forth are addressed. Various workshops are conducted at the local level to generate awareness about the impacts of tourism, garbage management, nature conservation, clean energy use, etc. Exchange visits are also organised to expose and share experiences with other community groups within ACA, and elsewhere in the country.

Responsible travel to the fragile mountain area of ACA is promoted among visitors and other stakeholders. The national and international visitors to ACA are informed to minimise negative economic, environmental and social impacts; support in the generation of greater economic benefits for local people and enhance the well-being of host communities; and make positive contributions to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage.

Access infrastructure (roads, trails, bridges, signage, etc.), safe drinking water stations, information centres, environmental management, and other tourism-related infrastructure are gradually being upgraded to enhance the quality of the experience of tourists. New destinations and routes within ACA are continuously being explored and developed in order to reduce crowds in certain sites and provide unique natural experiences. An example is the Mardi Himal Trek, identified in the early 2000s.

Tourism development in ACA is often considered a benchmark for the development of tourism in other areas of Nepal. Nevertheless, there are certain constraints that might hinder tourism development in ACA in the future. The growing desire of local communities and elected leaders to connect each and every settlement by a motor road, and possible development of megaprojects such as hydropower plants in the ACA might put decades of conservation and development efforts at risk.

Impacts of tourism in Annapurna Conservation Area

All forms of tourism produce negative impacts on the natural environment and the ACA is not exempt. Nature-based tourism, which is generally considered to contribute to biodiversity conservation, can also cause the degradation of natural areas if unregulated. These impacts may include the crushing or clearing of vegetation, soil modification, the introduction of weeds and pathogens, water pollution, visual impacts, and disturbance to wildlife.

ACA receives around 180,000 tourists annually. Each tourist brings with them an average of at least one support staff as a guide, porter, or cook, which makes the total number of outside visitors to the area about 360,000 per annum. However, the number of trekkers alone does not indicate the intensity of the impact. For instance, tourism impact is reported to be higher in the Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park than in the Annapurna Conservation Area, although the former receives fewer tourists. This indicates that, although the impacts of tourism are inevitable, they can be reduced by the meaningful engagement of the local community.

The environmental impacts of mountain tourism have been noted in numerous publications, particularly deforestation and forest degradation caused by the demand for fuelwood. Most tourist lodges still use fuelwood for cooking and room heating.

However, tourism in ACA has so far not had a significant impact on the structure and composition of the forests because various conservation activities, including the provision of alternative forms of energy, no campfire policy, and afforestation have been successful. This is primarily because of the successful development of community and private woodlots through the establishment of tree plantations, together with an increase in conservation awareness and the introduction of alternative energy sources, such as fuel-efficient stoves, kerosene, liquid petroleum gas, solar technology, and electricity.

Wildlife populations in ACA have increased after the introduction of conservation initiatives. Although there is occasional hunting in ACA, evidence suggests that tourism has made a positive social contribution to the conservation of wildlife because tourists are sympathetic to the cause of environmental protection and conservation. However, some negative impacts on wildlife behaviour were observed in ACA such as frequent sightings of the common langur and birds scavenging on discarded food and litter. Some wildlife species have also become habituated to humans as a source of food in tourism areas.

Another visible impact of tourism has is on the physical environment. The construction of new tourist lodges, or the expansion of existing ones, has increased. New lodges are often modern in design, undermining the traditional local style and creating visual impacts.

Tourism is a driving force for integrated conservation and development in ACA. Significant investment has been made in infrastructure schemes such as micro-hydro schemes, health centres, and bridges. Tourism has helped generate resources for these schemes and also increased the capacity of local communities to contribute. Income generation and creation of employment opportunities are the major economic benefits of tourism in the area. More than 5,000 locals are employed by lodges in the Annapurna area. However, tourist spending is very low. Tourists spend an average of only $39 per day, making it a low-cost destination.

Nature-based tourism has brought better economic opportunities to remote mountain areas, such access to better housing, education, and healthcare. However, tourism also generates biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. Disposal of solid waste is a serious concern as decomposition is an extremely slow process in the high mountains. Its effects and significance depend on the volume produced, the application of recycling, waste prevention strategies, and the nature of the receiving environment .

Some villages, such as Chhomrong, have been very successful in preventing the accumulation of plastic water bottles and glass beer bottles. The lodge management committee of this village has banned the use of plastic water bottles and glass beer bottles, and instead encourages the use of boiled water, electric water filters, and canned beer.

But tourism also brings inflation. The majority of foodstuffs, fuel, and household items come from outside the ACA region. Therefore, tourism causes economic leakage and local inflation by driving prices up. Local communities have also expressed their growing concern about the shortage of labour, which is deflected to tourism, for agriculture.

UNWTO market research suggests that people will seek out adventure travel, natural spaces, and safe and quality experiences post-COVID-19. Protected areas in Nepal such as ACA can offer visitors this opportunity. Therefore, it is imperative that protected areas are prepared to attract this surge. Nature-based tourism in protected areas must ‘built back better’ after COVID-19, by not returning to business as usual but by seriously taking into account of the quality of service and tourism infrastructure.

Dr. Siddhartha B. Bajracharya is executive director of the National Trust for Nature Conservation and Dr. Dhanjaya Regmi is chief executive officer of the Nepal Tourism Board.