Transregionalism, Hierarchy, and Belonging Dynamics in Himalayan Mountain Tourism
Mountain tourism is one of the few fields Nepal earns international fame and seeks equitable prosperity. Tourism studies literature points out a number of issues Nepali citizens are facing around Himalayan mountain tourism, ranging from ethical concerns over the recent increase of fatalities vis-a-vis summits in commercial expeditions (Nepal and Mu 2017; Nyapane 2017), through state-supported essentialisms of ethnicity and culture (Bakke 2010; Sharma 2016; Sherpa 2009), to models of individual choice and exchange for alternative ways of life (Baumgartner 2015; Ortner 1999). Few studies, however, have examined patterns of internal social structure and/or processual dynamics through which international tourism is uniquely localized in Nepal as well as across the Himalayas, albeit limited examples such as the role of social engagements (Adams 1996), global impacts Nepal tourism has made (Liechty 2012), and non-touristic Thamel (Linder 2017). Moving beyond the conventional frame of tourism versus a priori individual, this paper asks the question: How have local attributes and global forces conjoined to have created the contemporary field of mountain tourism across the Himalayas?
To answer the question, this paper analyzes ethnographic data gathered from a number of field trips scattered from 2012 to 2018 working with Sherpa mountain guides, Sherpa expedition organizers, non-Sherpa Nepali tourism laborers, government representatives, non-Nepali outfitters, as well as foreign tourists. Analytic focus lies in three unique features of the mountain tourism industry in Nepal: transregionalism, hierarchical structure, belonging dynamics. First, Himalayan mountain tourism is now virtually a series of transregional endeavors as distinctively Kathmandu-centered, where international and domestic flows of tourists, staff, information, capital, equipment and other related entities pivot around the capital of Nepal. As much as Thamel is never a permanent mainstay of tourism, geopolitical contest several “hot spots” have posed against Kathmandu will be examined. Second, as an industry, the global sector of Himalayan mountain tourism has developed a complex and still evolving structure of exchange relationships, over which the Sherpa has increasingly attained governance and monopoly. Finally, the Sherpa have never been a single group, establishing peculiarly dynamic practices of belonging as their own tradition of fission and fusion. New groups of “Sherpas” have replaced those industrially successful ones who are retiring to more lucrative fields than guiding novices on mountain slopes. The enduring tension between the usages of the title “Sherpa” for ethnicity and for occupation is not merely of a ethnolinguist’s interest but a crucial juncture from which one may parse out the interplay between the local and the global in Himalayan mountain tourism.