Sunrise Pashmina started out as a project of Bridges-PRTD ("Projects in Rational Tourism Development"). Bridges itself grew out of the perception that the only way to conserve many of the last best places on Earth is to help the residents derive economic opportunity from their natural resources in ways that do not destroy their fundamental natural and cultural assets. In many remote mountain areas, the best solution is to promote low-impact backpacker tourism as an alternative to both extractive industries (such as logging, mining, and hydroelectric exploitation) and also to more disruptive upscale tourism. The impact of luxury tourism is in many ways similar to that of natural resource extraction: very little economic advantage accrues to the local area, while the rapid installation of modern infrastructure and amenities quickly undermines the traditional way of life. Backpacker tourism, on the other hand, tends to trickle-drip money directly into the hands of the local people, while encouraging community action to protect both the natural environment and the cultural features which are the primary tourist attractions.
Based on this premise, Bridges-PRTD sought to collaborate with host communities, both actual and potential, in developing tourism strategies most compatible with their needs and aspirations. Our first project was a study-abroad program, whose pilot expedition was carried out in the fall of 1999. In order to observe tourism in a broad range of developmental stages, a group of international students and volunteers undertook an extensive trek through one of the most popular destinations in the Himalayas of Nepal: the Everest trail, from the end of the road at Jiri up to Everest Base Camp. We then settled down in Rolwaling, a neighboring valley which has been relatively unimpacted by tourism so far, but where the community has clearly expressed its desire and intention to participate in the economic opportunities that have opened up elsewhere. Through weeks of study and discussion, we agreed on a number of objectives and strategies that will be the basis for continuing collaboration in a long-term series of study-abroad expeditions.
Independent Backpacking Tourism
The study-abroad program of Bridges-PRTD was not an end in itself. Our objective was to demonstrate the feasibility of a paradigm shift in backpacker tourism. What we were looking for was ways to encourage backpacker to spend more time (and money) at the destination. Study and volunteer work are the two most useful options, in our view. However, we were approaching both from a different perspective than the conventional study programs and ecotourism ventures already in operation. Unlike accredited universities, which must charge students the same as or more than they would be paying at home, we kept our costs very close to the shoe-string budget available to independent backpackers. Secondly, the students had to accept that all research was shared by the project: results obtained by any individual can be used and published by any other individual or by the program; and those results will continue to be used by all future teams. In that way, projects launched by individual participants can be much more extensive and more useful to the community and to other researchers than anything a single student might hope to accomplish in a few weeks. We think that this kind of study group is the ideal way to introduce tourism to a new destination: the tourists are students, and their eyes are wide open to the hazards and opportunities of tourism development.
Another strategy is to offer volunteer work opportunities to independent backpackers. We think a lot of tourists would like to make some kind of contribution to the places they visit, but don't know what to do. Therefore the host communities should put together an agenda of projects, short- and long-term, on which backpackers can participate. For instance, on arrival at a village, they might find postings for volunteer work in trail improvement, waste disposal pit construction, or English instruction. They could then choose a project most compatible with their itinerary. This is a procedure vastly different from most ecotourism operations, in which the tourists pay top dollar to join a highly structured excursion, where again most of the money winds up in the pockets of agents and service providers far from the ecotour destination.
Bridges-PRTD aims to promote both study and volunteer tourism on a global scale -- not necessarily through our own projects, but by inspiring and coordinating similar efforts in remote mountain destinations around the world.
While our primary interest is the mountainous areas, the highland-lowland linkages are such that we have had to expand our scope to include the gateway urban areas. To give a simple example of the inevitability of the broad approach: we had hoped to develop a project that would regularly remove non-biodegradable waste from the trekking area. As it turns out, the garbage processing capability of the urban area is so negligible that it is pointless to transport the waste to Kathmandu: it would just end up dumped in a river, contributing to a far greater problem than the one it was meant to solve. Therefore, we became involved in an effort to upgrade urban tourism impact.
Freak Street Rehab
Specifically, we began working with the Jhochhen Tole Tourism Promotion Committee to enhance living conditions and economic opportunities in a key area of Kathmandu. This area, which became known as Freak Street when hippies hung out there in the 1960s and 70s, is actually the cultural heart of Nepal. The area includes the most important temple district in Nepal, a World Heritage Site that is apparently utterly unfunded and unattended. The ancient alleys are home to hundreds of craftspeople, among the most skilled silverworkers, weavers, tailors, carvers, musical instrument makers, and painters in the world. However, in the last 25 years another district of Kathmandu has captured virtually all of the Freak Street's former clientele: Thamel, an area with virtually no attractions of its own, has become a tourist enclave, bursting with shops, hotels, restaurants, taxis, rickshaws, moneychangers, drugpushers, and Tiger Balm hawkers catering to the seasonal throngs. Freak Street is virtually abandoned, seedy, and economically depressed. The western boundary of the area is a river that has become a stinking sewer. And yet it has possibilities, if only because Thamel has become so overcrowded that people are ready for the peace and quiet of a former Mecca.
The thing that was holding back the Freak Street renaissance was, not surprisingly, money. Tourists these days, unlike the hippy trailblazers in the 1960s and 70s, are relatively demanding. The comparatively sleek hotels (still unbelievably cheap by our standards), the cybercafes, ice cream parlours, and the well-appointed shops have become significant elements of infrastructure. Rehabilitation of Jhochhen Tole requires investment. We thought that part of the solution was to enable local craftspeople to reach a global market without moving to Thamel. That means Internet. However, relatively few of the producers could afford a computer or Internet service. Even telephone service was hard to come by, requiring a lengthy wait or a large bribe. A credit card merchant account was practically out of the question for all but the most wealthy: due to the soft currency, a huge deposit is required. So, one of Bridges' projects was a collaboration with a local pashmina producer, to develop a marketing vehicle for pashmina textiles; our expectation was that, if this initial effort were successful, we would be able to put expand it into a Jhochhen Tole Bazaar, an Internet mall where any local merchant or producer could market goods overseas with virtually no start-up costs. Even a moderately successful effort along these lines would make a huge impact in the economic resources of the participants, and would encourage investment and cooperation in community projects to enhance tourism -- which, after all, is the local market for those same products.
That was then.
A lot has changed since we got started with Sunrise. For one thing, Tsering has become quite prosperous. He's gotten out of the trekking equipment business, and expanded his production. He no longer produces just for Sunrise, but supplies several other distributors operating under their own brand names. We no longer operate Sunrise as a development project, but as a small business partnership.
Jhochhen Tole itself has had a business boom, based largely on Indian investment. Unfortunately, the tacky new buildings have not been compatible with the traditional architecture, and much of the historic appeal has been obliterated. It's still a nicer place to stay than Thamel, which is a noisy circus, but it's not the cool hang-out that it used to be. And there isn't much that a nosy goody-goody organization like ours can do to redirect the development.
Due to the Maoist insurgency, our Bridges-PRTD study/volunteer program ended in 2003. In 2003, we founded a new entity, Mountain Legacy, with an agenda that is largely an extrapolation of the Bridges agenda. You can find out more, and even get involved yourself, by reading our Other Projects page.