While reconstruction is gathering pace following the massive earthquakes that hit Nepal on 25 April and 12 May 2015, a new crisis is threatening the country’s fragile recovery. A diplomatic spat with India has reduced fuel supplies in Nepal to a trickle, forcing up transport prices and triggering shortages of essential goods.
Nevertheless, Nepal remains open for business and its people are still urgently in need of the money that tourists and trekkers bring to the local economy. Beyond the headlines, it is still perfectly possible to travel to and around Nepal, so here is an overview of what you need to know if you are planning a visit.
Why is there a fuel shortage?
The fuel blockade began on 23 September 2015 after Nepal announced its new constitution, which was seen by some as being unfavourable to the Madhesi people who live along the border between the two countries. Following protests by Madhesi groups, some of which have turned violent, fuel deliveries across the Nepali border ground to a halt, leading to widespread shortages across the country. The Nepali government has accused India of orchestrating the blockade, which the Indian government denies. UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon has called for supplies to urgently resume to avert a humanitarian crisis, but so far there are few signs of a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
Nepal has appealed to its neighbours for emergency assistance, but fuel supplies from Bangladesh still need to transit through India, and deliveries from China have been held up by repairs to roads that were damaged by the earthquakes. As a result, Nepal has dwindling stockpiles of fuel, and aviation fuel in particular is being tightly rationed.
What does this mean for travellers?
Since the start of the blockade, transport of fuel into Nepal has been limited to small numbers of vehicles every few days, leading to shortages across the country. However, the Nepali people are resourceful and disrupted fuel supplies are nothing new for this land-locked Himalayan nation. So, life continues as normal, and the main effect of the blockade on the ground – and indeed in the air – has been rising prices, particularly for domestic flights.
Can I still get to Nepal?
A few airlines have cancelled flights to Kathmandu, most notably China Southern and China Eastern Airlines, but most carriers are still flying to the Nepali capital, albeit with additional stops outside Nepal to refuel. Flights from China have been particularly affected as the airports where aircraft could potentially refuel are at high altitude and are not suitable for ordinary airliners. Predictably, the costs of extra take-offs and landings have been added to fares, so this is an expensive time to fly to Nepal.
How about by land?
Nepal’s land borders with India are the focus of the fuel blockade and the transport of goods has been badly affected. However, passenger traffic across the border has always involved a change of vehicle from an Indian operator to a Nepali operator, so travellers can still cross into Nepal by land, dependent on the status of the protests that have sprung up at border crossings between the two countries.
You should have no trouble reaching the Nepali border from the Indian side, though some bus companies have reduced the frequency of services due to falling demand. On the Nepali side, buses still head daily from the border to Kathmandu and other key cities, but services are less frequent and prices are higher. This has led to a lot of overcrowding on buses, which were never known for being particularly comfortable.
A more important consideration is the risk of being caught up in protests, particularly at the main border crossing at Birganj. Protests have also flared up periodically at Sunauli-Bhairawa, Nepalganj, and the minor border crossing at Dhangadhi. The border crossings at Mahendranagar (Bhimdatta) in the far west, and at Kakarbhitta/Panitanki in the far east have avoided most of the unrest, and may be the easiest places to cross into Nepal, despite the long travel time to Kathmandu or Pokhara.
Can I still get around Nepal?
Buses are still running across the country, but the government has introduced a fuel quota system, restricting fuel sales to certain vehicles on certain days, so fewer vehicles are running, buses are very crowded and fares have doubled to many destinations. However, for the time being, the popular tourist buses linking Kathmandu, Pokhara and Sunauli/Bhairawa are still charging the usual fares, though these were always higher than the competition.
Services from Kathmandu and Pokhara to the main trekking trailheads are also affected, and many trekking agencies and independent trekkers are grouping together to charter vehicles, rather than relying on less reliable bus services. In some cases, trekkers are cutting out the middle man and trekking directly from the city to avoid delays getting to the usual starting points. Note that emergency helicopter services are also affected by the fuel shortages – another reason to trek carefully and slowly to avoid altitude sickness!
Domestic flights have been hit hard by the shortage of Aviation Turbine Fuel, and there are reduced services on many routes, though planes are still flying daily to Pokhara, Lukla and other key tourist hubs. Sight-seeing flights around the Himalaya have also been suspended. The rising cost of fuel is being passed on to customers via fuel surcharges, even for passengers who have booked and paid for tickets before the crisis, and fares have doubled since the start of the crisis.
Can I still hail a taxi?
Local transport is also suffering from the blockade, with a big increase in taxi fares, reflecting the trouble that many drivers have getting fuel for their vehicles (which often involves paying over the odds via the black market). Fares from Tribhuvan International Airport to central Kathmandu, and from Kathmandu to Patan, Bhaktapur and other cities in the valley, are around three times the normal rate. Of course, you can avoid this by renting an eco-friendly, petrol-free bicycle from one of the many agencies in Thamel.
For travellers renting a motorcycle or car and driver in Nepal, fuel is still available from petrol stations and via black market channels, but prices have tripled, and petrol stations are only releasing fuel to private vehicles on designated days. The sensible precaution is to stock up on enough fuel to complete your journey – and come back, if necessary – before leaving the city.
Are there any other shortages we should know about?
Supplies of cooking gas have also been affected, so food prices are elevated in some areas and trekkers are having to pay higher prices for fuel for camping stoves, and higher costs for meals on organised treks. A potentially more serious issue is the shortage of medicine – if you plan to go trekking in particular, bring any medicines that you need from home, including Diamox, antibiotics for common infections, and any medication you take regularly.
When will it all be over?
That is the million rupee question. The blockade could end in a day, or it could continue indefinitely. Diplomats from the nations involved, and from the United Nations, are negotiating to break the impasse, but with the central bone of contention being the Nepali constitution, this may take some time to resolve. What is certain is that the people of Nepal need tourism more than ever to get past this current crisis and rebuild for the future.