Tourism in the World’s Most Polluted City

Euro Asia Treks

June 12, 2024

Tourism in the World’s Most Polluted City

Article by: Mr. Rakshit Khadka – Béyul

Kathmandu’s Air Quality Crisis Erodes Visitor Experience

The plane descends towards Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, the gateway to Nepal. Through the window, a dense orange haze can be seen engulfing the valley below. Exiting the international terminal, visitors are greeted by the bad air that stings the eyes and makes breathing a challenge immediately.

Ranked among the world’s most polluted cities, Kathmandu faces a severe air quality crisis in recent years. IQ AirVisual, a Swiss group that visualises global air-quality daily, often labels Kathmandu as the most polluted city on the planet. There are four air quality monitoring station in the valley, which consistently report an average Air Quality Index (AQI) above 150, with PM2.5 particles comprising most of the pollutants.

Despite its cultural significance, symbolized by its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Kathmandu struggles to maintain its allure amidst the pollution. Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, the valley is home to seven “Monument Zones” inscribed as World Heritage properties. In comparison, London boasts only four world heritage sites, highlighting Kathmandu’s cultural significance.

However, what was once the city of temples has now degraded into the city of dust. The panoramic snow-capped Himalayas against a crisp blue sky, which once formed the backdrop to this picturesque city, now appear grey and hazy. Its priceless monuments and cultural centres have become enveloped in dust and pollution, making it an unenjoyable environment for both local inhabitants and tourists alike.

Pollution and dust engulf Kathmandu Durbar Square
Pollution and dust engulf Kathmandu Durbar Square, a World Heritage Site. (Photo: Rakshit Khadka)

The primary pollutant in Kathmandu- PM2.5, or particulate matter less than 2.5 microns thick, is among the most dangerous pollutants. These minute particles pose a heightened threat specifically because they can penetrate the respiratory system, reaching the lungs and even entering the bloodstream. Due to their small size, they are also likely to remain suspended in the air for longer, heightening the risk of inhalation. Alarmingly, in Kathmandu, these pollutants surpass hazardous thresholds, often exceeding the World Health Organization’s recommended safe daily limit for exposure by up to 100 times.

A report on Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) of Kathmandu issued by the Energy Policy Institute of the University of Chicago in 2023 revealed the shocking fact that particulate pollution in the air is reducing life expectancy of the Valley populate by up to 4 years. Air pollution is now the biggest public health crisis in Kathmandu, killing more people than smoking, alcohol, diabetes, malaria, road traffic accidents, natural disasters, and other causes.

Mismanaged construction boom, unregulated vehicular emission, uncontrollable wildfires, winter inversion and cross-border industrial pollution have combined to bring Kathmandu Valley to the state that it is today. Primary domestic polluters such as vehicular emissions, garbage and agricultural waste burning, brick kilns, and construction sites, all contribute to the poor air quality here.

In addition to local sources, trans-border pollution from India is also carried by westward-blowing winds, significantly impacting both northern India and Nepal between November and April. This pollution stems from various sources, including wildfires and crop residue burning, as well as particulate matter from large-scale industrial and vehicular emissions. The extensive use of firecrackers during the Diwali festival in October, particularly in Indian states like Punjab and Haryana, further aggravates the situation, in turn further deteriorating the air quality in Kathmandu.

Haze over the Indo Gangetic Plain
Haze over the Indo-Gangetic Plain. Image by NASA.

The Valley’s bowl-like topography, where the air stagnates for up to 18 hours a day, augments the natural mechanism keeping the pollution trapped in and over the city. The monsoon winds from the Bay of Bengal bring 60-90% of Nepal’s annual rainfall during the summer months, helping bring some respite by flushing out pollutants. However, as October approaches, the easterly winds diminish, and the westerlies originating from the Mediterranean fail to carry as much moisture, leading to the shocking air quality in the winter months.

But more shocking than this is the glaring absence of political will to reduce air pollution. Nepal’s government and its political class, recognized internationally for institutional corruption, are mired in a perpetual state of political instability. Too distracted and preoccupied to address the converging crises, Nepali authorities are incompetent to tackle such a complicated multinational problem neither on a policy level nor on a diplomatic level.

Moreover, media and news outlets in Kathmandu too are showing waning interest in covering the ongoing crisis. The crux of the problem however lies in the education level of the general public, who lack awareness about air pollution, its health impact and the adjacent impact on tourism. Consequently, there is no public pressure on the government to act and therefore there is no action.

“The politicians in Nepal would steal water from even the ocean,” said Kiran Shahi, a veteran tourism entrepreneur operating an adventure camp at Shivapuri Nagarjun National Park, 12 km north of the city. “The ticket counter of this park collects 7-8 lakhs per month. Where does the money go, we don’t know. They don’t collect the waste, so I collect it myself and burn it. I have no option, at least it’s away from the sight then.”

The Beyül team were out hiking in the park on 30th March when we saw that the entirety of the businesses in the national park were burning their waste. A signboard stood in front of the national park ticket office, which red “better environment for better tourism”. Adjacent to it, two Nepal Army personnel were burning a pile of plastic waste.

View of Kathmandu covered by smog from Swoyambhunath Temple
View of Kathmandu covered by smog from Swoyambhunath Temple, a World Heritage Site. (Photo: Rakshit Khadka)

Zooming out, the conversation surrounding air quality (AQ) and tourism is lacking academical understanding internationally too. Despite a wealth of literature exploring how tourism affects air pollution, there remains a noticeable scarcity of studies investigating the reciprocal impact of air quality on tourism.

Moreover, existing research allocates relatively little focus to the effects of AQ on destination image, tourism demand, and destination competitiveness. Curiously, majority of the studies that are available are predominantly based in China. These studies shed some light into how AQ influences tourism, examining both the broader perspective of tourism demand and the individual level of tourist’s perceptions.

From these studies, researchers have concluded AQ indeed pertains to physical comfort and aesthetic enjoyment among other factors, which are crucial to tourist experience. Meteorological factors, such as sunlight, temperature, and air quality, together make up the aesthetical aspects of climate, affecting the attractiveness of a destination to tourists. Air quality therefore not only has a direct impact on human health but is among the core indicators to measure the comprehensive image of a city, affecting human emotions, travel consumption, outdoor activities and people’s sense of experience thereby affecting tourism vitality and consequently the wider economy.

On the other hand, compared to other forms of environmental pollution like water and soil pollution, air pollution is more visibly and easily perceived, indicating a potentially higher negative impact on tourism in affected destinations. Decreases in AQ have been observed to correlate with decreases in tourism flows or a reduced likelihood of local and international tourists of visiting problematic destinations.

For instance, research in Fuzhou city in China show that for every one percentage point increase in the air quality index, local travel frequency decreases by 0.090 percentage points. This translates to an annual reduction of approximately 2.4511 million tourists in Fuzhou. No recent studies have been conducted on Kathmandu, however a 1997 study by the World Bank estimated that Kathmandu was losing NRs. 0.5 billion in tourism revenue due to air pollution.

There are some intriguing research which violates the logical assumption about the effect of air pollution on tourism as well. Surprisingly, recent World Bank tourism data is showing that countries with worst air pollution are found to have the most promising tourism market with increasing numbers of inbound tourists in recent years. Despite being labelled as heavily polluted, countries like Bangladesh, Mongolia, India, Indonesia, Bahrain, and China have seen a steady increase in tourist numbers. This suggests a curious correlation between air pollution and tourism growth.

However, research in China is putting data into perspective as further studies indicate that travelers who encountered air pollution during their trips are 92.857% less likely to revisit the city and 93.421% less likely to revisit the country. This strengthens the notion that even though tourists arrive at the destination somehow, air pollution discourages them from ever revisiting it, indicating a severe impact on the destination image and sustainability of such tourist numbers.

Ironically, the slogan for Nepal’s tourism campaign, “once is not enough” contrasts sharply with these existing realities. With the surge in tourist numbers due to the post-pandemic “revenge travel” trend, Kathmandu’s condition is bound to make a lasting impression on many visitors. The pressing questions of whether these tourists will ever return to Kathmandu, if they will recommend the city to others, and what impact will this have on Kathmandu’s image remain distant concerns for Kathmandu’s tourism authorities.

A monkey overlooking Kathmandu Valley
A monkey overlooking Kathmandu Valley enveloped in haze from Swoyambhunath Temple. (Photo: Rakshit Khadka)

On our way back from the national park, we popped into Baudha Stupa, one of the 7 world heritage sites in the city. Here we met Ben Weber from Germany who had just arrived back from a trekking expedition to Annapurna Base Camp. “Oh ya, the pollution is quite terrible in Kathmandu” he said. “We found it quite weird but didn’t think much about it. My friend did get sore throat when we arrived, it could have been the pollution, bad cough too”. When asked if he would return to Kathmandu and if he would recommend the city to his friends and family he replied “I would definitely come back to Nepal if I get the chance! Not sure about Kathmandu. We wouldn’t come just for Kathmandu. Hopefully it gets better, and we can come back”.

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