Tourism amidst post conflict era: profiteering of a kind


KATHMANDU, Nepal – The former Maoist guerillas in Nepal are intensifying effort for the promotion and marketing of tourism to woo tourists in the entire mid-western district where tourist haven was quelled into a seething pot of war.

Tourism is perceived as an approach which can supplement social and political reconciliation efforts in post-conflict settings. Tourism is sensitive to conflict and responsive to peace. Consequently, the Maoist reveals that entered to political mainstream following the Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2006 are applying the strategies to revive and sustain the social harmony by promoting tourism in the region. The Maoist vision consists of showing visitors how the people’s war began and spread from such remote rugged terrain.

Maoist intensity is clear that the impact of a decade long (1996-2006) armed conflict on tourism in Nepal has cost heavily and hence promoting and marketing tourism would be a constructive social force in the affected regions.

Though the mention of Rukum, remote mid-western region of Nepal may first conjure up images of war, the area is also known as the district of “52 lakes and 53 hills”. This once popular saying may lead people to envision flocks of visitors charting the region—the reality, however, has been different. The remoteness of Rukum–in terms of roads and other facilities—has always deterred the tourism industry from making its way in. And after the Maoists seized the area, its potential as a tourist haven was quelled into a seething pot of war.

Now, with peace restored and insecurity no longer posing the same threat after the Maoists’ entrance into mainstream politics, the Maoist party has shown interest in transforming the entire district into a war museum. Their vision more or less consists of showing visitors how the people’s war began and spread from Rukum.

Ethical questions surround this idea. Is it not too soon? And will it not reopen wounds that are still healing? The mere notion of visiting Rukum to fulfil personal curiosity may seem voyeuristic. But despite this, politicians and members of the Tourism Board sound optimistic.

“The picturesque bays and valleys, once filled with misery, are now awaiting tourists,” says Kashi Raj Bhandari, director of the Research, Planning and Monitoring Department at Nepal Tourism Board (NTB). “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,” he says.

According to him, one lake that stands out is Syarpu Lake—locally popular as a picnic spot. Locals claim that before the war began, more than 2,000 tourists visited the lake annually. To restore the area’s former vibrancy, locals are working to open up trekking routes that connect directly to the lake. The recently held Syarpu Festival provided momentum to this project, which has initiated the construction of few hotels in the home-stay model to accommodate visitors.

Locals are also focused on promoting the Guerrilla Trek, which would follow the trails along which thousands of Maoist guerrillas dug trenches and ambushed their enemy during the insurgency. As Rukum lies within the range of hills connecting the western and the eastern regions of the country, the trek will follow the major routes that Maoist guerrillas walked through.

The trekking regions mapped as of now are Khara-Khawla-Jhimkhani (45 minutes), Jhimkhani-Jhulnetta (4 hours), Kharakhola-Jibang-Khabang (3 hours), Jibang-Syarpu, Bafikot (3 hours), Syarpu-Kunakhet (3 hours), Kunakhet-Pipal-Rukumkot (3 hours), Rukumkot-Marine (2 hours), Maring-Kakri (2 hours) and Kakri-Riga-Tuksara (5 hours). These villages stand as witnesses to the war and still retain the scars of an entire decade of fighting.

Another proposed attraction is the Kham community, a group from which most guerrillas were recruited during the initial phase of the war. The change that befell the culture and lifestyle of the people of Kham after the insurgency is thought to be of interest to people.

“It is time we try to heal old wounds and cleanse our hatred with the bright prospect of tourism,” says Sarun Batha Magar, the Maoist district in-charge. As voiced by Magar, his party is bracing itself to show the scars of war to tourists. He believes that such a display can increase employment opportunities for the people of this marginalized region. The NTB voices likewise. “The area has the potential to become a war product to attract domestic as well as the international visitors,” says Bhandari of NTB.

According to available statistics, more than 558 people died in the region during the insurgency. This fact begs the question: Is it not politically incorrect to present a region that suffered the devastation of war into a holiday destination? The Chief District Officer of Rukum, Beni Madhav Gyawali, pointed out the necessity of an extensive survey and research before implementing the idea, but this question seems to escape the minds of NTB members, local Maoist representatives and groups of enthusiastic youths by the name of Dynamic Youth Society in the programme they organize.