Nepal mulls policy shift to allow hotels back into tiger strongholds

  • Nepal’s Ministry of Forest and Environment is working new regulations to permit hotels to operate within national parks like Chitwan, a draft of the document seen by Mongabay suggests.
  • The decision follows the closure of seven hotels in Chitwan National Park in 2009 due to ecological concerns and alleged involvement in poaching, with the last of them shutting down in 2012.
  • Despite opposition from conservationists and local communities, the government has shown interest in allowing commercial activities, including large-scale hydropower plants, within national parks, raising concerns about environmental degradation.

This is the first story in a three-part miniseries on Nepal’s development plans around protected areas. Read Part Two and Part Three.

KATHMANDU — Nepal’s Ministry of Forest and Environment is preparing fresh regulations to allow hotels to return to national parks such as Chitwan, a decade after they were shut down based on environmental concerns.

Although rumors were doing the rounds in the corridors of the ministry and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation in Kathmandu for a long time, with officials neither confirming nor denying the preparation, Ministry Secretary Deepak Kumar Kharal and department chief Sindhu Dhungana spilled the beans at a program organized by the World Bank in Kathmandu recently.

Kharal, addressing the program, said the government is working on a new regulation that will “open up an avenue” for private sector investment in Nepal conservation. Dhungana went a step further to say the new regulation will address policy barriers to allow the private sector, which has so far “shied away” from investing in projects inside protected areas, to do so.

The Rapti river flows through Chitwan National Park. Image by Abhaya Raj Joshi.

A draft of the regulation seen by Mongabay states that each hotel establishment can occupy up to a maximum of 2,000 square meters (21,527 square ft). Similarly, hotels have been classified into ‘temporary structure’ or ‘permanent structure’. While those under the first category will only be allowed to operate camp sites with up to 40 beds, facilities under the second category can be operated as hotels, lodges or resorts with up to 60 beds. The operators of the tented facility will have to pay the park an annual fee of Rs 16.200 million ($121,338) and hotels double the amount. General rates for tourism operators in other national parks in the Terai seem to be around 50% of that of Chitwan.

In 2009, the government decided not to renew the lease agreements of all seven hotels inside Chitwan National Park, which had been in operation for more than five decades, saying the facilities had negative ecological consequences and that some of the people running the hotels were involved in poaching. The hotels all shut in 2012.

The government has time and again said it is working on new regulations to get hotels back into national parks such as Chitwan, as they bring in high-end tourists who are willing to pay extra to stay in the jungle.

Nepal is home to 12 national parks, a wildlife reserve, a hunting reserve, six conservation areas and 13 buffer zones. These extend from the lowland Terai Arc to the high Himalayas, covering nearly a quarter of the country’s total land area, according to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation. While local communities were displaced to establish national parks in the southern lowlands, where hotels haven’t been allowed to operate, people continue to live and operate hotels and lodges inside some national parks and conservation areas, such as Sagarmatha (Mount Everest), Langtang and Annapurna, famous worldwide for their scenic trekking routes.

Following the closure of the hotels inside Chitwan, building of new hotels and resorts boomed in buffer zone areas such as Sauraha and Meghauli. However, it was found that tourists were willing to pay only a fourth of the amount for accommodations outside the national park compared with those inside it.

The new regulation will likely contain provisions to award lease contracts based on competitive bidding and open up protected areas such as Chitwan, Bardiya and Shuklaphanta, habitats of iconic species such as tigers (Panthera tigris) and rhinos (Rhinoceros unicornis), a department official said, seeking anonymity as he isn’t authorized to talk to the media. It will also include Koshi Tappu Wildlife Reserve, Dhorpatan Hunting Reserve, and Shivapuri National Park located close to the Kathmandu Valley.

Hints of this also came from Environment Minister Birendra Mahato, who lost his job in a recent cabinet reshuffle, as he had been saying in public fora that Bardiya doesn’t even have a single good hotel for tourists, and that should change.

When asked about the proposed regulation, department spokesperson Bed Kumar Dhakal said the finer details of the new regulation haven’t been finalized yet. He hinted that the World Bank has also shown interest in facilitating private sector investment inside protected areas where building hotels has been prohibited.

The government official who didn’t want to be named said the issue of hotels inside the national park crops up whenever a new minister sets foot in the ministry. “A draft has been prepared, but it’s very difficult to take a call on the issue, as it involves a lot of stakeholders, including the local people, most of whom are against the idea,” he said.

However, the government recently issued a new controversial directive allowing the construction of large-scale hydropower plants inside the country’s protected areas despite opposition from conservationists. “Those in power were likely testing the waters to see the level of resistance they face with the hydropower regulation so that they can roll out more regulations to allow private corporations to come in,” the official added.

Banner image: A Bengal tiger. Image by mzagerp via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Abhaya Raj Joshi is a staff writer for Nepal at Mongabay. Find him on 𝕏 @arj272

Read the next part here:

Cable car proposal is Nepal’s latest plan to commercialize national parks