On Sept. 1, 2019, four months before researchers in China identified a novel coronavirus, KC Krishna opened his first business in the heart of Namche Bazaar, the tourism hub of Nepal’s Mt. Everest region.
Krishna had moved to the boomtown for work 12 years prior. He spent more than a decade managing another lodge before opening his own, Thawa Lodge & Bakery Cafe, along with Sherpa Bar & Steak House on the floor below. Finally, he seemed poised to capitalize on the postmillennial rush of tourists to the highest mountain on Earth — a boom there seemed no reason to doubt would continue.
Less than two years later, Krishna — like so many other new business owners in the region — finds himself buried in debt mounting as high as the nearby peaks. With virtually zero income and no relief in sight, he does not know if his business can survive a third consecutive tourism season spoiled by COVID-19.
Recent media coverage of the Solukhumbu region has focused on the Nepalese government’s questionable decision to allow climbers to return to Mt. Everest, and the infusion of tourist dollars this will bring. But for most locals — many of whom took out high-interest loans to build businesses in the years leading up to the pandemic — this will be too little, too late.
Climbers typically account for less than 1% of visitors to the region. Trekkers make up the rest, and they have remained almost entirely absent this season. In 2019, 7,993 people entered Sagarmatha National Park by the end of March. This year, the number was 255.
As of last week, the trickle of trekkers has gone altogether dry. Along with neighboring India, Nepal is now experiencing a worrisome coronavirus surge. The Ministry of Health reported 9,196 new confirmed cases Friday, up from 298 a month before. Fatalities from COVID-19 are increasing, too. With 44% of tests now coming back positive, the government has imposed lockdown restrictions and suspended domestic and international flights.
While there have so far been no confirmed deaths from COVID-19 in Solukhumbu, the pandemic-induced tourism drought is hurting everyone in the region — which has undergone a radical transformation over the last three decades, from an agro-pastoral economy to one based on tourism.