Responsible travel guide to Nepal

Nepal is an incredibly beautiful country. It’s majestic mountains, friendly people and interesting culture, all make it an appealing country to travel to. However, it’s also incredibly fragile, with melting glaciers, overcrowded hiking trails, pervasive poverty and unmanageable waste.

Since 1964 when the first commercial trek was undertaken in Nepal, the tourism industry has slowly gained momentum to over a million foreign national arrivals in 2019. For such a small country, this provides both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because tourism provides employment and generates decent income for local people. However, it also exacerbates challenges like waste, pollution, overcrowdedness and environmental degradation. 

As travellers, we can do better. We can travel more responsibly and ethically and we can make tourism a more positive force in countries like Nepal. We just need to understand our impact and make changes to the way we do things when we travel.

If you’re travelling to Nepal, I’ve put together a guide on how to shop, eat, trek, travel and give back responsibly and ethically so you can leave a more positive impact.

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What is responsible and ethical travel?

Responsible travel. Ethical tourism. Sustainable travel. Mindful travel. Ecotourism. What do all these phrases really mean? Although they might seem overused or simply buzz words, they all come from the same principles of being better travellers. 

Responsible travel means being socially and culturally aware when you travel, understanding your impact on the places you visit and trying to leave a positive impact on the people who inhabit those places as well as the environment. 

It means you should research the places you are going, understand the challenges those places face and try to come up with ways you can minimise your impact or create a more positive affect from you being there. It may seem broad and vague, but being a more responsible traveller can be achieved in many ways. We have to think outside of the box. 

In reality, we have to incorporate responsible and ethical considerations into everything that we do in a country. Shopping, eating, travelling, trekking and donating can all be done in better and more responsible ways. 

So, here’s a guide to responsible travel in Nepal.

Kathmandu city
Kathmandu city

Ethical shopping in Nepal

Whenever we visit another country it’s always nice to bring something home to remind ourselves of “that time when…”. Selling souvenirs is a huge business in Nepal and most of the shops in the tourist-centric Thamel area of the city offer some sort of souvenir whether it be clothing, prayer wheels, incense sticks, tea or yak wool shawls. So, what can you do that can make your shopping more ethical and sustainable?

Support not-for-profit and women-run organisations and businesses.

There are a number of not-for-profit or non-government organisations running stores and initiatives to help empower women, protect local handicraft traditions and generate jobs and income for disadvantaged or rural families. You can find some of these shops in Kathmandu and Pokhara, but some of the ones I personally went into include:

Local Women’s Handicrafts | Paknajol Marg, Thamel, Kathmandu

A wholesale shop selling fair-trade textiles, jewellery and homewares made by Nepali women. You can speak to any of the staff there about their initiative and what they do.

Beni Handicrafts | Chaksibari Marg, Thamel, Kathmandu

This organisation collects rubbish off the streets of Kathmandu, including wrappers, packaging, tyres, rice bags and old clothes and turns them into functional products like handbags and homewares. The products are made by disadvantaged and rural-based women who came to the city in search of work.

Sabah Nepal | Ring Road, Lalitpur/Patan

An organisation that supports 3000 women home-based workers from rural or marginalised communities. They sell a range of textiles and jewellery made by women. 

HUB | Amrit Marg, Thamel, Kathmandu

An interactive space that brings together ethical food and shopping all into one. Coffee works with 650 Nepali coffee farmers and over 30 artisans to produce products you can enjoy in their cafe as well as buy and take home with you.

Read next: A Guide to Kathmandu: Best Things to Do in the Himalayan Capital

Kathmandu shops
Local shops in Kathmandu

Don’t promote child labour or begging

I know it can be heartbreaking when you see anyone begging on the streets. They may even tell you their sad story. This is very common in Nepal. Unfortunately, no matter how guilty it might make you feel, giving money, sweets, or even pens to anyone begging is not productive and can, in fact, be more harmful. 

Giving to people begging on the streets often just encourages it and promotes the cycle of poverty that these people are seemingly stuck in. Even giving pens or books to kids is not a responsible thing to do as many of them will simply re-sell the item to a shop in order to get money or likely, they will be operating under some sort of organised begging syndicate. This might sound alarmist, but it’s a real thing. There are organised groups who take cuts from what beggars earn from unaware donors during the day. Here’s a report on organised begging syndicates by Anti-Slavery International, it’s an old report but it’s an issue that doesn’t get much attention.

The best thing you can do instead is to spend your money in the right places in Nepal and make conscious decisions when you travel. Honestly, if you do this then you’ll be doing more than you think. Supporting organisations through buying handicrafts from their outlets or eating at their cafes will help ensure their projects receive funding. So, rather than buy off someone hassling you on the street, it might be difficult, but spend your money in an NGO-run shop instead.

Dal bhat
Dal bhat

Ethical eating and dining in Nepal

We all have to eat. And often, food is a huge part of our time in foreign countries. There’s nothing better than sampling some of the local cuisine and eating at a different restaurant or cafe every day. However, there are things to be mindful of when we choose where and what to eat. Surprisingly though, it’s relatively easy to find good quality and ethical food in Nepal.

Eat mostly plant-based or vegan food

It’s basically common knowledge now (at least I hope) that eating meat is terrible for the environment and future of our planet. Livestock production accounts for around 18% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and there are also a host of other problems linked to the industry, such as land clearing and degradation and animal cruelty. However, I’m not 100% vegan myself, so I’m not going to make you feel guilty if you aren’t either. But choosing to eat a few vegetarian or vegan meals per week still make a hugely positive impact on your environmental footprint. 

In Nepal, most people eat dal bhat, a thali-style meal of rice, lentils or dhal, vegetable curry and occasionally, pickles or salad. This is usually vegetarian, mostly because Hindus don’t eat beef and meat, in general, is rather expensive for most people to purchase. So, when you decide to have a dal bhat at one of the restaurants in Kathmandu, don’t be afraid to opt for the vegetarian option, as this is what most of the country eats on a daily basis. 

Nepal is also a good country for vegans and vegetarians in general. Kathmandu and Pokhara are filled with trendy cafes and restaurants will all sorts of creative takes on international favourites and Nepal food. For vegans, the best cafes include:

Loving Heart Vegan Cafe | Z Street, Thamel, Kathmandu

Considered the only 100% vegan cafe in Kathmandu. It also has gluten free options.

Green Organic Cafe| Chaksibari Marg, Thamel, Kathmandu

A 100% organic cafe that grows there own produce in a community garden, it offers both vegan and gluten free options. 

OR2K Restaurant | Mandala Street, Thamel, Kathmandu and Centrepoint Complex, Lakeside, Pokhara

Possibly the best all-round restaurant in the country, this Israeli/Italian place has an incredibly delicious and creative menu, it also has vegan and gluten free options.

Responsible travel guide to Nepal pin

Find not-for-profit restaurants or female owned kitchens

There are a number of not-for-profit or non-government organisations running initiatives to help empower women, generate jobs for disadvantaged families and support organic food production. Some of these organisations have cafes or restaurants where part of the profits go back to invest in further projects. The one’s I became aware of during my time in Nepal include:

The Village Cafe | Jhamsikhel Marg, Lalitpur/Patan

An initiative by Sabah Nepal. You can try traditional Newari food cooked by disadvantaged women who have learnt new skills through the Sabah program. A lot of the produce is also grown by some of the women.

Mahabir Dais Restaurant | Mandala Street, Thamel, Kathmandu

A man who came from a remote village in the Annapurna region and set up an NGO credited for bringing internet connection to many rural villages in the Himalayas. He has also orchestrated community treks in the Annapurna region and the restaurant partly helps fund his projects as well as disperse information about these treks to tourists.

Khumjung village
Khumjung village

Mindful travelling in Nepal

The very fact that you’re in a foreign country already means that you are having an impact on it and what kind of impact is important. It’s often the subtle behaviours and choices we make that can have the biggest impacts and they’re also the ones that we often overlook when we consider how to be a responsible traveller. It’s not all about waste reduction and supporting local income-generating projects. It is also about respect and awareness of how we behave and how we approach our travels in a given country. 

Most likely, Nepal will have a vastly different culture with different customs and different challenges than your own. So thinking about the way things are done in Nepal, the lifestyle and the traditions, is important when considering what we do as tourists while we’re there.

Don’t support animal tourism

Unfortunately, animals are a part of the tourism industry in Nepal. Whether it’s in Chitwan National Park where you can visit unethical elephant breeding centres and ride an elephant-backed safari or the donkeys and horses who are overworked bringing beer and chocolate to trekkers and teahouses on the trails.

As best you can, avoid supporting any of these practices. In Chitwan National Park, avoid visiting any of the animal centres, especially ones that promote animal rides and patting sessions. 

If your trekking company uses pack animals to carry gear, ask them about their treatment and how they ensure their safety and health. If you suspect that your trekking company is mistreating their pack animals, say something and ask the question.

Sadhu pilgrim at Muktinath
Sadhu pilgrim at Muktinath

Be respectful when photographing people and places

Responsible travel in Nepal doesn’t always have to be about money or generating jobs, but it can also be about plain old respect. One of the biggest issues in responsible travel that doesn’t get talked about enough is to do with photography. Ask people before taking their photograph. 

If you’re taking an image of a crowd or a street, it’s generally okay to take it without permission. However, if you are taking a specific photo of a person or their shop or their animals, it’s important that you ask their permission.

In Australia, people take their privacy very seriously, so why wouldn’t they in Nepal too? Nepalese people are extremely friendly and they are well and truly used to tourists around, so most of the time they will oblige if you want to take a photo.

Still, if you want to take a photo of someone, be respectful and engage in conversation with them first. There’s nothing more uncomfortable for anyone than a random stranger approaching with a camera pointing at them.

You should also take even more precautions when taking photos of children. Always ask their parents or guardian or nearest adult and respect them if they decline or seem uncomfortable about it. Always ask and always respect the response.

Traditional dance Nepal
Traditional dance in Bhaktapur

Respect local customs and traditions

Nepal is a predominantly Hindu country with a large Buddhist minority along with other religious groups and variations. It’s a very respectful culture and being a foreigner in such a country means you should respect the local customs and traditions of that country. 

In Nepal, people will not scold you for unintentionally disrespecting the culture or doing something by accident. However, it pays to do some research on basic customs. Always exercise caution when entering a temple and pay attention to any signs that may indicate what is appropriate clothing and behaviour.

Generally, you should dress conservatively when in a temple or holy site. It’s also common practice to remove your shoes before entering. For Buddhist sites, it’s important to walk around a stupa or chorten in a clockwise direction. Ask if photographs are allowed inside, as at many temples you’ll find that this is not the case. Respect signs that might indicate that only Hindus or Buddhists are allowed in certain areas of the complex (this is certainly true at Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu).

Trekking from Jomsom to Muktinath
Trekking in Nepal

Fly less and walk more

Moving less can also be better for the environment. Air travel accounts for about 3% of total global emissions, which may seem negligible but is actually quite significant if you think about it in terms of personal impact. For example, a return flight from London to San Francisco emits more per person than twice the emissions produced by a family car in one year. If you want to read more about why we should fly less, here’s a good article from the BBC. 

Flying less forces us to look at alternative options. In terms of travelling in Nepal, that might mean a torturous 12-hour bus ride instead of a one hour flight. Or it could mean, three days of extra hiking instead of a 40-minute flight. It sounds extreme, but if you have the time it only adds on to your total experience, and significantly reduces your carbon footprint. 

Instead of flying into Lukla to get into the Everest region of Nepal, I took a jeep from Kathmandu to Salleri and started hiking from there instead. You can read about my experience doing that here.

Bus to Jomsom
Bus to Jomsom

Choose local and public transport

In the same vein, using local, public transport is also a better option for more ethical holidays. In Nepal, it might mean flying less and taking a bus instead, like I did to get to Jomsom. But it can also mean navigating the local bus network to get to a tourist site or walking there instead. 

For example, it’s only just over 2km to get to Swayambhunath Temple from Thamel in Kathmandu. Instead of hiring a tuk tuk or taxi to get there, walk instead! It also means you can see a different area of the city outside of the tourist centre. 

Ratna Park in Kathmandu is where many local buses run to other parts of the city. I used it to get to Patan as well as Bhaktapur, instead of hiring a taxi. It certainly takes longer, but it’s cheaper, an insight into how regular Nepalis get around the city and reduces your carbon footprint. So instead of hiring a private car or transfer, look into local transport options and see if there is a way of doing it easily by public transport (most of the time there is).

Shops in Bandipur
Shops in Bandipur

Give back responsibly

Many foreign tourists have a desire to give back to some of the countries they travel and donations or volunteering has for a long time been considered the main way to do that. However, in my opinion, if you take on board everything that I’ve said in this post so far, you’re already going to be giving back in a positive way. Responsible tourism itself can be a huge driver for good if your money is supporting local jobs and incomes. 

Still, I know many of you would still prefer to physically give back by volunteering at an organisation or donating material things. However, this has become a huge problem in many countries, with voluntourism becoming one of the biggest irresponsible things you can do. You can read a report by Save the Children on the effects of voluntourism here or read this guide from globalteer here about how to go about volunteering and donating the right way and avoiding the pitfalls.

Do your research before volunteering

For God’s sake, if there is one thing you should do before signing up to a volunteer project, it’s doing your research. Nepal is a country that still grapples with significant challenges like poverty and inequality and there are a huge amount of organisations working in this field aiming to alleviate or do something about these issues. However, it’s the unfortunate truth that some of the organisations, exist purely to take advantage of wealthy and naive foreign tourists who come with the best intentions to help a community and end up doing more harm than good. 

If you’re insistent on doing some form of volunteering in Nepal, do your research before you settle on a project or organisation. Look at the following before volunteering:

  • What are the organisation’s ethics and policies?
  • How do they empower communities?
  • How and if they involve children
  • Are they transparent and open?
  • Where do they get their funding from? 
  • Are you qualified to be volunteering on the project?
  • Is the amount of time that you’re volunteering appropriate for the project or does it just suit your schedule and itinerary? 
  • Ask where your money goes if it’s a paid volunteer gig
Swayambhunath Stupa
Swayambhunath Stupa

Know who you’re donating to in Nepal

The same goes for donating. Too often items and clothing that are donated by tourists or foreigners to organisations in countries like Nepal are one or more of the following: in terrible condition and not usable, not appropriate for the lifestyle or climate of the country, sold to make money or stifling the local manufacturing industry. 

If you want to donate items, it’s often better to give them to an organisation in the country who is already working in that space. They will likely know more about how to distribute and who needs donated goods the most. 

Stop and think before you donate and ask yourself the following:

  • Will this be useful in this country?
  • Is it in good condition?
  • Is the organisation I’m donating to responsible and transparent?
  • Do they have plans and policies in place as to how they distribute their donated goods?
  • Who do they give the goods to and how do they determine who needs them?
Porters in the Everest region

Where should you donate or volunteer in Nepal?

I don’t have personal experience volunteering in Nepal, but I did donate some runners and clothing to KEEP before I left the country.

KEEP stands for Kathmandu Environmental Education Program and they are the only organisation that I can vouch for from experience. They are a registered non-profit organisation and have been operating since 1992. Their main mission is to ensure the future ecological and cultural prosperity of the country by reducing the negative impacts of tourism in Nepal. They run all sorts of programs, mostly to do with environmental awareness and eco-tourism, and also work in the trekking industry with porters. 

In terms of volunteering and donating, they have internships for at least one month on a variety of projects. They also require English teachers for at least one month teaching guides and porters during July and August each year. The office accepts donations in the form of trekking and travel clothing as well as trekking boots and shoes, backpacks and any equipment which are then given to porters and guides. They tend to inspect most items to ensure they are still usable and clean. 

You can find KEEP down a side street off Amrit Marg in the Thamel area of Kathmandu, almost opposite Shona’s Alpine Gear Rental shop.

Other organisations you can look into, include:

Australian Himalayan Foundation

Himalayan Healthcare

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