Pandemic shuts down Everest as Nepal suspends all permits

KATHMANDU (AFP) – Nepal yesterday barred climbers from all mountains – including Everest – over the coronavirus pandemic, in a major blow to its tourism industry.

The Himalayan country, which has so far confirmed one coronavirus case, earns USD4.4 million a year from climbing permits while the losses to expedition organisers will be even higher.

As well as suspending all climbing permits, Nepal stopped issuing tourist visas on arrival, Minister for Culture Tourism and Civil Aviation Yogesh Bhattarai told AFP. “The government has decided to suspend all spring expeditions and scrap permits for the time being. The decision can be reviewed after analysing the global scenario over the coming month,” he said.

Expedition organisers and Nepal tourism professionals said the move, which came a day after China barred access from its side, was justified but would cause a financial disaster.

Nepal, still recovering from a devastating 2015 earthquake, was hoping to attract two million tourists for the first time in 2020, celebrating it as a visit Nepal year.

A long queue of mountain climbers line a path on Mount Everest just below camp four, in Nepal. PHOTO: AP

United States (US)-based Furtenbach Adventures cancelled a move to shift its operations to Nepal after China closed the mountain on Thursday. “This is disappointing news for both our expedition leaders and our clients who have trained for months for this year’s climb,” expedition organiser Lukas Furtenbach said in a statement.

Every spring a tented city of hundreds of foreign climbers and support staff grows at the foot of Everest and other peaks. All have to live in close quarters.

As the air thins, breathing is already difficult at higher altitude – adding to medical risks if there is an outbreak of any kind among climbers.

“We understand the dire consequences a COVID-19 outbreak at base camp would have. Sadly, we have to agree that this is a responsible call to make right now,” Furtenbach said.

Nepal issued only five permits for the season but none for Everest so far.

Everest attracts hundreds of mountaineers from all over the world each spring, when a window of good weather opens up between late April and the end of May, prompting a rush for the summit.

Last year’s spring window saw a record 885 people summit Everest, 644 of them from Nepal and 241 from the northern flank in Tibet.

The traffic-clogged season saw 11 deaths on the mountain, with at least four blamed on overcrowding.