By Kit Kiefer
Nepal is gone.
Gone, but not gone. The country is still a country, with borders and leaders, the mountains are still breathtaking in every sense of that word, the valleys are still verdant and deep, and the people are still among the friendliest on earth.
However, there are fewer people now. The number of dead has passed 6,000, and may pass 10,000; the number grows daily as rescuers reach more villages obliterated by mudslides or shaken apart by the original quake and its powerful aftershocks. The number of injured has outstripped the country’s ability to provide them with appropriate medical care.
Everything in its most basic forms has been destroyed. Roads, water systems, telecommunications, electricity, food supplies – all gone or badly compromised. The most effective means of travel is on foot, as roads that are cleared of landslides in the morning are often blocked again by landslides by night.
“It’s been very difficult to get to some of the more remote areas, because of debris and damaged roads,” said Daniel Speckhard, president and CEO of Lutheran World Relief. “Some rural areas that were affected by the earthquake are still waiting for help to arrive because their communities have been largely inaccessible.”
Real cities – ramshackle in many places, but cities nonetheless – have been replaced by tent cities. For the fortunate. Other people are sleeping in the streets of the country’s capital, Kathmandu, away from damaged buildings and crumbling walls.
Yet there are signs of recovery, or at least relief, amidst the near-universal devastation. Some relief supplies are starting to get into the country, according to Speckhard; unfortunately, “the airport is overwhelmed and not equipped to handle the volume of flights that need to be coming and going to move people and supplies.”
Bus and plane service has resumed from Kathmandu to outlying cities and villages. The Nepalese government has announced that climbers can resume their ascents of Mount Everest, even though it has been only a week since an avalanche swept 19 climbers off the mountain to their deaths. There are few climbers remaining in the country, though. Those who did not leave as soon as they could after the earthquake and avalanches are dead.
True recovery seems far off. “A disaster of this magnitude will take months, if not years, to recover from,” Speckhard said. “It’s going to take a long-term approach. Right now the focus is on making sure people have the basics — food, water, shelter. But soon we’ll need to turn our attention to restoring livelihoods: What do people do for income when their businesses have been ruined? How do farmers restore their crops and keep people fed?”
And also, how does Nepal bring back tourists?
Tourists will return to Nepal, not now but soon. And when they do, it will not simply be a heartwarming story. It will be a key component of the country’s economic recovery.
Before the earthquake, tourism was Nepal’s No. 1 industry by a long shot. The number of tourists visiting the country approached 1 million in 2014, drawn by activities as diverse as mountain biking and visiting UNESCO’s World Heritage sites: the Kathmandu Valley (including the city of Bhakatpur), Lumbini, Chitwan National Park, and Sagarmatha National Park.
Aid will help Nepal in the short term, but in the long term, one thing that will help expedite Nepal’s recovery is the return of travelers and tourists.
That’s where Tourism Cares comes in.
Tourism Cares is a non-profit organization that mobilizes the tourism industry to make a difference in the world. That may not mean much in a developed country with a diversified economy, but in a country as tourism-dependent as Nepal, Tourism Cares has the potential to make a huge impact.
And Tourism Cares has a message for travelers.
“Visit Nepal,” said Tourism Cares’ CEO, Mike Rea. “You don’t have to visit this week or this month, but visit Nepal. Don’t cancel your fall vacations. That is how you can directly make a difference in Nepal.”
It’s disingenuous to suggest a silver lining in the dark cloud that is Nepal, but Rea does see a way to the country’s future recovery through tourism.
“Nepal has lost some things, but it has also gained some things,” he asserted. “Right now a whole generation of travelers around the globe – multiple generations – are being encouraged to think about Nepal, and are concerned about Nepal.”
Rea added that Tourism Cares is working hand-in-hand with communities in Nepal as well as travel agents and the tourism industry to adjust people’s expectations of Nepal at the same time they encourage people to visit the country, whether as part of a voluntourism effort or a more traditional tour.
Rea expressed optimism that the damaged World Heritage sites can be rebuilt, at least to some degree. He also stated that a trip to Nepal in the near future would be an unforgettable experience.
“It’s not going to be cheap or crowded, and you will receive a welcome from the communities there that will be profound and very sincere,” Rea said. “It will be a very special time to visit Nepal.”
Not every traveler is going to be able to visit Nepal, though. For travelers who can’t, but still want to help the country’s recovery efforts, Rea and Speckhard have some advice.
First, according to Speckhard, “Make a donation to a reputable relief agency. It’s the best and most efficient way to ensure that people are getting what they actually need in a timely manner. [The New York Times published a comprehensive list of recommended aid organizations here.] I’m partial to Lutheran World Relief, of course, but there are a number of great organizations on the ground doing good work. Another option is making things for our quilt-and-kit program to ensure that we’re ready the next time. Finally, if you’re a person of faith, please keep the people of Nepal and the relief workers who are helping them in your prayers.”
Echoing Speckhard’s comments, Rea recommends that you diversify your charitable giving. Focus on recovery – rebuilding – as well as relief. Fund groups that focus on localized recovery efforts like Mercy Corps as well as large multinational aid organizations like the Red Cross.
After that, Rea said, “Put away some of your giving for six months to a year. We’ll know so much more about the situation in Nepal in six months.”
You may even want to put that six-months money toward a trip to Nepal. It may be the most direct thing you can do to bring Nepal back.
Kit Kiefer directs content for Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. He is a former travel writer for The New York Times.