By Van Clayton Powel
When you stand on the large, fourth-floor terrace of the Hotel Tropicana in Pokhara, Nepal, you look out across the lake at the high ridge of jungle the sun sets behind.
A group of us from Whistler and Vancouver were out on that terrace this last Christmas Eve, soaking up the final rays of the sun, when we suddenly heard fireworks. Strange fireworks. Must be a Nepali tradition, I thought, as I stepped towards the edge of the balcony for a closer look, only to freeze mid-stride when someone cried out, “They’re shooting! They’re shooting each other!”
Now, we’re all familiar with the challenges Whistler has faced the last few years — bizarre weather, declining numbers, affordability — but could things be worse? Oh, yes, much worse.
Pokhara sits on the shore of a lake in a stunningly beautiful valley with some of the highest mountains in the world dominating the horizon. It is a breath-taking setting and people from around the world come for the trekking, rafting, paragliding, and mountain biking. The range and quality of such exotic activities have helped make this area one of the top tourist destinations in the world. Until recently.
Serious trouble began in 2001 with what many Nepali’s still refer to as “The Unfortunate Incident”. One of the princes in the royal family used his collection of automatic weapons to slaughter the king and the rest of the royal family. He then apparently turned the weapons on himself. (Rumours still abound as to what “really” happened.)
The country was thrown into a state of panic and turmoil since the king was not only very powerful (he appoints the government in Nepal), but also very popular. The resulting power vacuum plunged the country into a period of violent demonstrations and instability, and, as one would expect, tourist visits dropped dramatically.
Although extremely unpopular and controversial, the brother of the slain king was proclaimed the new monarch, and he quickly introduced authoritarian measures he said were needed to deal with Nepal’s poverty and corruption. He also, for the first time, engaged Nepal’s Army against the Maoist rebels who had taken over much of the country in a five-year civil war.
The new king’s measures have proven largely ineffective, and his governments have been fractious and inept. However, a cease-fire with the Maoist rebels did eventually stabilize the country enough that tourists began returning. And for Pokhara, this was vital.