Women Find Jobs in Guide and Trekking Industries During Nepals Tourism Year

by Global Press Institute | Global Press Institute
Friday, 21 October 2011 10:52 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

KATHMANDU, NEPAL - Tourist vehicles marked by green registration plates stop at Basantapur, one of the major tourist attractions in central Kathmandu, Nepal's capital, and deposit hordes of tourists from various countries. As the tourists stroll around the area, their guides inform them about the century-old palace that once used to be the seat of the ancient monarchy. As tourists are busy taking photographs in the scorching midday sun, they listen to the history of Basantapur from Indira Joshi, one of the first women tour guides in Nepal. "I tell them everything I know about this place," says Joshi, dressed in a blue blouse and wrapped in a blue traditional saree along with matching accessories. At 57, Joshi says she tries to conceal the wrinkles on her face with makeup, but that her age hasn't decreased her energy or enthusiasm as she teaches the visitors about her country. "We, who are in the tourism business, should save the image of our country," says Joshi, who leads tours in English and Japanese. Even during the height of the Maoist insurgency from 2001 to 2004, when many people were killed in a day, she says she focused on creating a positive image of Nepal for her tourists. "But I do try and tell them about things like pickpocket[ing]," she says. Joshi's day starts when her mobile phone rings. As she performs her routine household chores, she gets requests from hotels and travels agencies to give tours. She then sets out with her group to acquaint the tourists of different nationalities with Nepal's history, geography, culture and traditions. Satisfying the tourists is one of the biggest challenges, says Joshi, who has been a tour guide for 34 years now. But she says she has accepted the challenge, having served more than 1,000 tourists, including some foreign dignitaries, in Kathmandu and even in places outside the capital, such as Pokhara, Chitwan and Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. She says she has also made a strong living out of it. "I've raised my kids and even married them off," she says. "I've also built a house, thanks to this profession. I'll continue in this field until I can." Joshi says she initially started working to support her family. Born and raised in Kathmandu in a Newar family, an indigenous group of the Kathmandu Valley, she was married as a teenager. Since her husband was a government employee, his salary wasn't enough to raise a family and send the kids to school. Moreover, Joshi says she always thought that if she could work, she wouldn't have to depend on him. Though she had a bachelor's degree, she says it was difficult in Nepali society for a woman to work outside the family a few decades ago. But when she found out that the Nepal Tourism Board was offering a tour guide training program, she defied the norm, obtained her license from the program and secured a job with Yeti Travels. "I became the first woman guide in Nepal," she says with pride. Joshi is one of the first women tour guides in Nepal, according to the Tourist Guide Association of Nepal, a tourist guide representative body. And today, many other women have joined her in this profession. Women say the tourism industry provides ideal job opportunities for women by offering strong wages and national and international exposure. Industry officials say that as society changes its view of these jobs as masculine, more women have the opportunity to become government-certified tour and trekking guides. As part of Nepal Tourism Year 2011, the government has introduced various training programs to draw women to this industry. Meanwhile, private companies have joined the initiative as well. The government of Nepal declared 2011 as Nepal Tourism Year with an aim to host 1 million tourists in the country. There are 227 certified women tour guides and 97 certified women trekking guides in Nepal, according to the Nepal Academy of Tourism and Hotel Management, NATHM, a government body created under the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation in the 1970s to produce a skilled workforce in the tourism and hospitality industry. Tour guides inform tourists about historical, cultural and scenic landmarks on daily tours, while trekking guides take guests on extended nature treks. Like Joshi, other women say this profession has helped them earn a living, travel the country and meet people from all over the world. Sarita Khadka, from Solukhumbu, a district in eastern Nepal, says that after her husband left her and married another woman, she had to take care of their child alone. With only a ninth-grade education and no professional skills, she decided to become a porter, carrying tourists' bags during trekking trips. Her district, home to Mount Everest, draws trekkers and tourists from around the world. She gradually started working and earning up to 10,000 rupees, ${esc.dollar}140 USD, per month. "It improved my financial condition and also helped in sending my daughter to school," Khadka says. While working as a porter for two years, Khadka learned English on the job, which helped her to switch into the trekking guide profession. "We get to travel to new places, and we also earn good money," she says with a smile. "This profession is good for women." The same joy of traveling attracted Nima Giri, 24, from Dang, a district in Nepal's Mid-Western region, to the profession. Giri has been working as a trekking guide for two years with Makalu Adventures, a tour operator in Kathmandu. For her, she says the best parts about the job are traveling to different places, meeting new people, exchanging cultural information with tourists and making friends during her trips. "If I were just sitting inside the house, not working, I wouldn't have known anything," Giri says. "We have to get out of the house to see and understand the world." The women say their tourism jobs have helped them become financially independent. During peak season - from September to November - and sometimes until March, Khadka and Giri say they earn about 25,000 rupees, ${esc.dollar}350 USD, plus additional tips, for a 10- to 15-day trekking tour. Joshi, on the other hand, charges 2,000 rupees, ${esc.dollar}30 USD, for a full-day city tour. The average annual income in Nepal is less than ${esc.dollar}200 USD. "It's because of this guide profession that I've become financially sound," Giri says. "Maybe because of my capability as a guide and honesty, tourists who hire me once prefer me again. That's why I'm still doing this in this age." Khadka says that people who doubted her career choice now envy her income. She says that her husband even asked to come back home and live together again, but she says she prefers to live and raise her daughter alone. "I joined this profession because of the circumstances," she says, referring to when her husband left her. "People now respect me." Joshi, Khadka and Giri are merely a few representatives of the growing number of women guides in Nepal. Working with both local and international clientele, these women say they have challenged the traditional Nepali belief that women are only meant for household chores. Gyan Bahadur Karki, chief officer of NATHM, says that as society's perceptions of jobs are changing, women have been increasingly attracted to these trekking and mountaineering jobs, which once were considered challenging and dangerous for women. "These jobs that once were only male-centric have now been accepted by women too," Karki says. Giri says she never ventured outside her village before becoming a trekking guide and only visualized the mountains and snow she saw in photographs. But now she has reached places like Salleri and Phaplu in Solukhumbu, near Mount Everest, and even the Annapurna Base Camp, a major trekking route near Mount Annapurna, the 10th highest mountain in the world. She encourages other women to do the same. "It's unfortunate that Nepali women don't get that opportunity to see their country," Giri says. "The patriarchal society still doesn't want to see women take a leap outside the house." But she says that more and more women are defying the traditional norms. Joshi, who started the job in 1977, says social ridicule used to be a constant affair. But she says she didn't let it bother her because she had her husband's support. She says that society's point of view has since changed, but she wishes that more women would join the bandwagon. "Woman guide have a reputation that they're honest and hardworking," she says. "But there's still this demand in numbers that they haven't been able to fulfill." Vishnu Gyanwali, former president of the Tourist Guide Association of Nepal and a former tour guide himself, says that traditional Nepali society has had trouble digesting the idea of women out in the field with men for months, as the profession sometimes requires. But he says this hasn't deterred women. "This is against the traditional norms of the Nepali society," he says. "But women have braved this." Khadka says that her profession is good for women because it requires only basic literacy skills. Women can learn the trekking routes as porters and then take up the trekking guide profession, says Khadka, who attributes her rise from porter to trekking guide to the constant encouragement from foreign tourists. "The equality that Western tourists show makes me forget my worries," she says. "They make me feel that I am someone." Giri says the Ministry of Tourism requires trekking guides to have basic reading and writing skills, along with physical fitness. Tour guides, on the other hand, must have a bachelor's degree and possess geographic, economic and socio-political knowledge of the country. The job market has flourished for women guides, says Sabita K.C. of the Nepal Tourism Board. "Amidst increasing unemployment in the country, this profession has boosted the women to make it as their income source," she says. But she says it's important for the women to obtain certification, which is required by Nepali law. She says that many women who have spent years in this field have been coming to the board to get the permission letter, but that many are still working without approval, which is illegal. "They cannot be working without a permission or certification," Karki says. But he admits that there could be a significant number of women working without permission. While Joshi and Giri are working with government permission, Khadka is working via her personal network, without a license. But for Khadka, it's normal. She says she that she used to get nervous about conversing in English and getting trekkers lost on the trail, but now she has now been working long enough in the field that she can "tour Nepal with the help of a map." But Rakesh Sharma, a tourism entrepreneur, says that many tourists are suffering from guides who work without government permission and certification, citing issues such as theft. He says there are many destinations in the country that need more skilled and trained guides. Karki says that the government has taken steps to make this profession respectable and responsible. In order to have a skilled workforce to meet the demands in the tourism sector for Nepal Tourism Year, the government has established various training programs. NATHM, the only government-recognized college, has been providing training in the tourism and hotel sectors, Karki says. By the end of 2010, NATHM had trained 28,282 people. "We are producing guides who are capable, who have all the required skills," he says. He says that women have been given priority in the trainings, with women constituting 15 percent of those trained in 2010. For women who can't make it to the capital, where the academy is based, he says that there are programs conducted in various localities. "We are constantly working so that there isn't a lack of women workforce in the tourism sector," he says. Training companies have also emerged in the private sector. Karki of NATHM says that 3 Sisters Adventure Trekking, a trekking company, has encouraged women and the private sector to become involved in the tourism industry. Though women have been actively involved as city tour guides, women working in the trekking industry has been a more recent development. It all started some 12 years ago when three sisters from the tourist town of Pokhara, Lucky, Dicky and Nicky Chhetri, dove into the profession. To encourage other women to join them, they established the training company, Dicky Chhetri says. "This is probably the first institution in Pokhara to train women to become professional guides," she says. The company, which has received recognition from the United Nations and Nike, provides trekking guide training to women from "backward" communities in western Nepal, she says. The sisters have so far trained more than 1,000 women. Still, industry insiders say the job isn't without challenges. Gyanwali says that women face various problems when they are away working for long periods. For example, he says they can't be with their kids, sometimes lack separate hotel rooms, and also at times don't receive space to sleep in the tents or pitch their own. "Regardless of the challenges, women have moved forward in this profession," he says. "This is pretty positive." Dicky Chhetri shares stories of not having separate rooms for women and being ridiculed by men on the trekking routes. But she says that, with the changing times and more social acceptance of women in this profession, the situation is improving. Gyanwali says that there have also been stories of sexual exploitation of women during treks, which may deter families from letting women join this field. But the women guides deny this. Joshi says that she has faced no such instances in her almost four-decade career. She says she has always been respected in this profession. "If women are confident and capable, then there is no question of them being exploited," she says.