KATHMANDU, Nepal — In a bid to make good on the promises made to former Maoist rebels, Nepal unveiled new trekking routes through the battlegrounds of the country's bloody, decade-long insurgency this week.
Christened the Guerrilla Trek, the 14- 19- and 27-day routes will take hikers across rugged mountains, rivers lined with lush wheat fields, caves and centuries old villages, where Maoist soldiers once dug trenches and ambushed government troops.
Now, with a peace deal in place and provisional legislators trying to hammer out a constitution, the government hopes that an influx of tourist dollars will spread wealth further beyond the Kathmandu Valley, Pokhara and the Everest region – as the Maoist fighters long demanded.
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“The picturesque bays and valleys, once filled with misery, are now awaiting tourists,” said Kashi Raj Bhandari, director of the Research, Planning and Monitoring Department at Nepal Tourism Board (NTB).
The board is the sole promoter of the route, but later the government and private investors will build infrastructure where it is needed, according to local officials.
For the time being, trekkers will be supported by small guesthouses and home-stays. But if the routes are as popular as those to Everest base camp or other popular tourist destinations, thousands of local will benefit from the opening of new hotels and restaurants, as well as new jobs for tour guides and porters.
Will it work? Maybe.
“The trekking industry has had limited success spreading benefits thus far mainly due to a lack of commercial information for agencies,” said Robin Boustead, an author of trekking guidebooks and one of the pioneers of the newly opened Great Himalayan Trail.
“As more trails are published I expect this will change, but [their commercial success] will depend in how well these new products are marketed internationally.”
Nepal's bloody civil war cost more than 14,000 people their lives before a peace deal was reached in 2006 between the authorities and the Maoist rebels, led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal, then known simply as Prachanda, or “Fearless.”
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The Guerrilla Trek will take tourists through the epicenter of the conflict, in western Nepal, where the first skirmishes were fought in Rolpa and Rukum districts in 1996.
Unveiling the Guerrilla Trek, along with a map and guidebook written by American Alonzo Lyons, Dahal – who is now the leader of a legitimate political party and a member of parliament – said the trek has the potential to become a “war tourism product” like conflict sites in Vietnam, Russia and China.
The trail starts from war-ravaged Myagdi district and passes through other conflict-hit areas like Baglung, Puthyan, Rolpa and Rukum—which are still home to many former revolutionaries.
Here thousands of Maoist guerrillas once dug trenches and ambushed their enemy during the insurgency. When the Maoists attacked Beni, the district headquarters of Myagdi, in 2004, hundreds of Maoist guerrillas trekked up and down the rugged mountains of Rukum. And hundreds of combatants lost their lives. Part of the Guerrilla Trek follows the route the Maoists used to carry their wounded.
“As all know, Nepal has seen big political upheavals and the people’s revolution will be of no value unless the country goes through an economic transformation,” Dahal said.
Already, tourism is the largest industry in Nepal, the biggest contributor of foreign exchange, and accounts for about 6 percent of the country's gross domestic product. But tourist dollars predominantly flow to the most developed areas of the country—where there are roads and hotels. And it's the hinterland that is home to thousands of soldiers from the Maoists' disbanded People's Liberation Army that arguably needs those dollars the most.
Following a Comprehensive Peace Accord signed between the government of Nepal and the Maoist leadership in 2006, some 19,000 Maoist soldiers were confined to cantonments for the past six years – as a provisional government negotiated terms for their demobilization.
Now, though some of them will be inducted into the regular Nepalese army, thousands more will simply return home – to lands that are desperate for income and development.
Fortunately, those lands are blessed with exotic wildlife, captivating waterfalls, rivers, caves, and delightful lakes as well as the towering Himalayas.
According to Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal, the route also offers comfortable hotels and lodges and home stay facilities.
“Ancient ruins, mountains, rivers lined with lush wheat fields, caves and centuries-old cultures in villages like Mahat, Cwangwang, Chakewang, Khara, Pipal, Syalapakha, Kakri, Hakam, Khola Goan, Burtim Danda and Saank can be attractions for both domestic and international visitors,” Nepal Tourism Board's Bhandari said.