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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 January, 2004, 00:48 GMT
Trekkers drawn to Nepal rebels
Navin Singh Khadka
BBC correspondent in Nepal

Amanda Mockidge
Trekker Amanda Mockidge gave money after a chat with rebels
Despite the recent upsurge in violence in Nepal, trekkers are returning to the trails - with the chance of meeting a Maoist rebel one of the main attractions.

Holiday agents say there has been a significant rise in the number of trekkers in recent months.

"For many trekkers, speaking to gun-toting rebels is an exciting experience," says Val Pikethly, a Canadian trekking guide returning from the Khumbu region, where Mount Everest stands.

"They get excited because they are not affected by the insurgency like the locals are."
Many trekkers have actually begun to enjoy their brief stints with the rebels
Deepak Mahat
President, Trekking Agents' Association of Nepal

The 45-year-old professional guide, who has led many groups in Nepal over the past 18 years, has herself met rebels while on the trails.

"I have had pleasant talks with them and they were quite polite with me."

More than 8,000 people have been killed since the Maoist rebels began their campaign to unseat Nepal's monarchy in 1996.

Although no tourists have been harmed, human rights groups have criticised both sides for committing other abuses.

Teahouse talks

Amanda Mockidge, a British trekker, came across rebels in the Annapurna region in western Nepal last month.

"I enjoyed chatting with them," she said of the meeting, during which she gave them 500 rupees ($7).

"They explained to me how they would use the donation for the cause of the insurgency."

Declared a terrorist organisation by the government, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has stated officially that it does not intend to harm tourists and for the seven years of the insurgency has so far kept its word.

Val Pikethly
Guide Val Pikethly says the Maoists remain polite

But it has deployed its workers along most of the popular trekking trails to collect money from visitors.

The rebels stop by teahouses to talk to tourists and ask for donations.

Trekkers usually hand over an average of $14.

There have been very few reported cases of tourists being pressured after refusing to pay.

And those cases have tended to be with individuals who turned out not to be associated with the rebels.

Many trekkers are happy to receive the souvenir of a receipt from the Maoists for their donations.

Nevertheless, some tourists later complain about having to pay for something that was not included in their package.

One "tourist" who did express discomfort from a meeting with the rebels was television star Michael Palin.

He was leading a BBC film crew in October when an accompanying British army officer and a team of six Nepalese nationals were abducted for two days by rebels before being returned to safety.

The officer was on a mission to recruit Gurkha soldiers.

Tourism boost

But, in general, says Bandinima Sherpa, first vice-president of the Trekking Agents' Association of Nepal, trekkers are happy to get to meet rebels.

Tourism is showing signs of an upturn after a three-year slump

"Most of them see the meeting as an adventurous part of their trek."

The association's president, Deepak Mahat, insists that agents have no intention of selling the insurgency as a thrill to trekkers.

"We would like to see an end to the insurgency. But the fact remains that many trekkers have actually begun to enjoy their brief stints with the rebels."

The government insists that Nepal is a safe place to visit.

Tourism ministry spokesman Sharda Trityal said: "The Maoist insurgency is an internal issue of Nepal involving Nepalese political forces.

"It has nothing to do with tourists who come to Nepal to spend their holidays. That is why no tourists have been kidnapped or injured."

Despite the breakdown of talks between the Maoists and the government last year, tourist figures are showing a slight upturn.

Violence has been on the increase since August when peace talks collapsed after a six-month ceasefire, but even so November and December saw a 50% increase in arrivals compared to the same two months of 2002.

Last year as a whole was 20% up on 2002.

Nepal's record year was 1999, when 500,000 tourists arrived, but that had halved by 2002.

The Royal Palace Massacre in 2001, the state of emergency declared a year later and many Western countries' travel advisories suggesting citizens not visit Nepal because of the insurgency caused the slump.

That may now be turning around, with tour operators saying trekkers are to thank for the recent increase.

And for some of these adventure-seekers, meeting Maoist rebels appears to be one of the main thrills.

UK officer safe in Nepal
21 Oct 03  |  South Asia

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