“Who wouldn’t want to revisit Nepal?” Mirko Tomassoni wrote back in one of our conversations when I asked his travel preferences recently. Mirko is not an ordinary traveler, he is a disability activist and a leader from San Marino. He was a former Captain Regent, which is a position equivalent to the Head of State.
In October of 2019, he visited Nepal with a group friends from San Marino. It was on an invitation by Kathmandu based CIL. He shared fond memories of the experience that was beyond his imagination. Guess what, he was not only provided with an accessible vehicle and an excellent Italian speaking guide by Four Season Travel, the whole team was geared to create an experience addressing his special needs as a traveler on wheelchair.
Though it was his personal holiday, he was welcomed to the Presidential palace by Nepal’s President, which turned out to be the highlight of his trip. He did explore the valley’s UNESCO heritage sites, a rendezvous with the one horn Rhinos in Chitwan National Park and the glimpse of majestic Annapurna mountains from Pokhara.
Now San Marino is recovering from the blow of Covid-19 and the world is on the recess mode in terms of International travelling. But this does not mean that one must stop thinking or planning for the next exploration. Mirko was one of the organizers of the 1st UNWTO conference on Accessible Tourism in San Marino in 2014. He clearly knows the importance of traveling for an individual, a nation and the global economy keeping the health and safety paramount. Mirko is already looking forward to the opportunity returning back to Nepal once the travel restrictions are relaxed. He feels that Nepal and its people have a special Himalayan magnet that brings people back once they visit the Himalayan destination.
Mirko is not the only one, there are many more who visited Nepal as tourists and turned into lifelong friends. Nepal welcomed 1.1 million international travelers in 2019 that also comprised number of travelers with disabilities. The destination is a work in progress in terms of accessibility and universal design compliance in the hotels, public places and monuments. However, the spirit of hospitality is in the free flow across the nation that makes travelers forget the absence of ramps and accessible accommodation outside Kathmandu valley.
If you thought that Mirko gave a courtesy call to Nepal’s President because he was the former Head of State from San Marino, you might want to continue reading! Nepal’s president was kind enough to welcome a group of ‘Wounded Heroes Trekkers’ from the USA in September 2016. This was a special adventure project undertaken by five amputees who successfully trekked to PoonHill (3200 meters) in Annapurna mountains.
This was also a part of the UNWTO World Tourism day 2016 celebrations supported by US based IDI and operated by Kathmandu based Four Season Travel. The message was loud and clear: ‘Accessible Adventure for all’ started to become a reality. Needless to say, this trip instilled much needed hope among Nepalese people with disabilities (PWD). An increasing number of PWDs were taking the opportunity of exploring around Kathmandu valley and beyond, promoting domestic tourism for all.
Mr. Sagar Prasai, a Nepali tech entrepreneur and an avid traveler on wheelchair, is among many local PWDs who are eagerly waiting for ease on travel restrictions so that he can enjoy a trip to Pokhara valley and Chitwan National Park. It will be a no surprise to see a surge in the number of Nepali PWDs on the path of exploring, connecting and empowering each other through domestic and regional travelers in the near future. It also creates much needed awareness to build the facilities accessible for the benefit of local and international travelers.
Generally speaking, Nepal is perceived as a destination good for adventure seekers and allocentric travelers. However, a good number of eminent travelers who visited Nepal found it absolutely stunning not only in terms of its natural beauty and unmatched hospitality, but also for the spirit of breaking the barriers promoting inclusive tourism.
Dr. Scott Rains – USA (2014), Marco Olivieri – Italy (2015), Wounded Heroes Trekkers – USA (2016), Julie Kent (2018), Jezza Williams – New Zealand (2019), Freddie Sherffield – UK (2019) are a few key names of travelers with disability who made a profound impact by lifting up local PWDs and instilling much needed resilience among the locals. Hence, the importance of Accessible Tourism is already acknowledged and embraced by Nepal.
Nepal Tourism Board inaugurated the first accessible trail (1.3 km) near Pokhara valley in 2018. The keynote speaker of the event was Hari Budha Magar, a double amputee British Gurkha Veteran. Hari is all set to climb Mt. Everest in 2021. This event did give a message to the world that Nepal was committed to make progress towards inclusive tourism goal.
Global tourism is going through unprecedented challenges. The restrictions taken up by local and regional governments are beyond imagination. However, we must not forget the very fact that travel is in our genes, it is one of the keys to humans’ endurance. Christopher Ryan puts it beautifully: “For most of the time our species has existed, we have lived as nomadic hunter gatherers moving in a small band.”
So humans will not stop travelling, though one or two sporadic pauses may occur in the future as well. While Mirko prepares for another big adventure to Himalaya, we keep working in getting better.
It is indeed a right time to reinvent the industry and make it anti-fragile. This is also a great opportunity not just to rebuild tourism, but also to make it responsible and more inclusive for the benefit of all.