Few sights are more breathtaking than Mount Everest—especially if its snow-covered summit is seen at eye-level from a commercial airliner flying to Nepal, home to eight of the world's 14 tallest mountains. Equally amazing things are happening beneath Nepal’s clouds these days. For the first time in a decade, the country is enjoying a semblance of peace—and optimism that its tourist industry can reinvigorate itself.
Nepal has long been recognized as one of the world's most desirable outdoor playgrounds, offering activities like mountaineering, trekking, river rafting and jungle safaris, to name a few. But in recent years, the country’s name has been more associated with civil war, tragedy and oppression. In 1996, an obscure group of Maoist rebels in the remote west began fighting the central government, a conflict that killed more than 13,000 people and rocked this tranquil Himalayan kingdom to its core. Things worsened in 2001 when the country's distraught crown prince shot and killed his parents, the king and queen, and several other royal-family members during a palace rampage before turning the gun on himself. There are numerous theories about exactly what happened and why, but it’s undisputed that Prince Gyanendra, the slain king's brother, took the throne and then, in 2005, fired the government, closed Parliament and seized full power under the guise of needing authority to halt the growing Maoist insurgency.
Just when observers were predicting that Nepal's civil war would drag on for years, it ended. The breakthrough came a year ago, when the population's patience with the monarchy ran out. Pro-democracy forces, backed by the masses, staged street protests and strikes in Kathmandu, eventually forcing King Gyanendra to cede most of his powers and reopen Parliament. As the first anniversary of the "April Movement" approaches, a shaky peace agreement between the government and Maoists seems to be holding, the rebels have joined Parliament and agreed to place their weapons under United Nations supervision, and an agreement on a new interim government could be announced any day. While keeping one eye on political developments, ordinary residents can't help but hope peace and the restoration of democracy will give a boost to Nepal's economy, including the tourism industry. "We want peace, but we also want tourists," says Kamal, a tour guide who took me and two companions on a recent sunrise hike to view the Himalayas in central Nepali town of Phokhara.
Inevitably, the transition from war to peace hasn’t been easy, or without violence. On March 21, as many as 30 people were killed during clashes between former Maoist rebels and supporters of an ethnic Madhesi political group in Gaur, southern Nepal. Some called the incident a massacre, and speculation was rife that the attacks were planned to scuttle the peace process. Because of delays in meeting benchmarks in the peace agreement, nationwide elections slated for June will likely have to be put off until November, when favorable weather returns. Rhoderick Chalmers, South Asia director of the nonpartisan International Crisis Group in Kathmandu, says further delays could derail the entire settlement. “The danger for the peace process is keeping everything on track, keeping everyone happy, keeping law and order, and the next six months won’t be easy,” he told NEWSWEEK. “We’ll see if the interim government can function.” Analysts are equally unsure what kind of new political order the elections will produce. Despite the fluid political situation, it’s likely that the Nepali Congress, the country’s traditional democrat party; the long-standing Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or UPN/UML, and the new rival Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), or UPNM, will emerge with the most seats in Parliament. What happens next is anyone’s guess. Depending on who has the most seats, Chalmers said, the parties could form a “triangular” alliance. A two-party communist alliance was less likely, he said, because the two parties don’t necessarily agree on many issues including whether to abolish the monarchy. Several smaller political parties are also expected to play a role in the new political landscape, which all sides hopes will move Nepal, with U.N. assistance, toward a unified functioning government.
The civil war ravaged Nepal's tourism industry, which once thrived because of mountaineering legends such as Sir Edmund Hillary, hippie backpackers and, later, European and American adventure seekers. The Maoists largely operated in the remote western regions and didn’t target tourists for kidnappings, but the spiraling violence nonetheless kept people away. In 1999, nearly half a million tourists visited the country; in 2006 it was around half that. The outbreak of peace and budding national reconciliation has had a positive effect, with tourism arrivals by air up 62 percent in February compared to the same month last year.
Touring Nepal isn't for the faint-hearted, but that doesn't mean senior citizens and families with children aren’t coming to visit. Some foreign tourists prefer to skip the rugged outdoor stuff in favor of exploring the country's rich cultural history, which includes ancient temples dating back to the third century, mountaintop Hindu and Buddhist temples and traditional markets. On first contact, Kathmandu can seem noisy, smelling and chaotic to first-time visitors—and it is. But it's so much more. Visitors can observe a culture that hasn't been tarnished by globalization or overrun with tourists. City residents, many dressed in traditional clothing, go about their lives, which center around work and religion, without any concern for the visitors in their midst. And that allows foreigners to move around undisturbed to view the temples and shops at the ancient Durbar Square or sip a drink at the Rum Doodle Café, where you can see Hillary Clinton’s autograph on a cardboard-cutout foot of a Yeti, the legendary, abominable snowman of Himalayan folklore. Outside of the capital, many small towns also cater for tourists, and almost everybody seems to speak English. In Phokhara, weary travelers can sit in a lakeside cafe and snack on yak cheese and fresh bread, indulge in north Indian cuisine or take comfort in a pizza or hamburger.
In the meantime, Nepal has much to do to achieve stability. During my trip, the Maoists were busily holding political rallies in the eastern part of the country, including in Kathmandu, in hopes of drawing support for their new political party, the UPNM. One of my Nepalese friends, Sree, said it was hard to gauge how much support the Maoists had in the country’s eastern regions. A former national gymnastics champion who now teaches children the sport, Sree said the most appealing thing about the Maoists was that they were against the current king, as were many average Nepalese in recent years. "It's good that the king doesn't have much power now," Sree told me, "but it's also good he's still here." The future of the monarchy is one of many issues to be resolved in the coming year. Sree’s comments suggest that Nepalese in general want to keep their traditions even as the monarchy moves to a more ceremonial role. But as some things change, some—like that breathtaking view of Mount Everest—will stay the same.