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Towards trash-free trekking routes

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IMG_2995-2A trekker picks garbage that had strewn along the Jumolhari trekking route

The Clean Bhutan project kicks off with nine trails being cleared of garbage in March

Waste: Just before the onset of trekking season, all treks routes, including those for day hikes in Thimphu and Paro, will be thoroughly cleaned in March.

The cleaning of nine trekking trails, including day hikes in these two districts, is part of the government’s waste management plan through the Clean Bhutan project, which the prime minister announced recently.

“Tourism is an important sector, and it’s equally essential for trek routes to be clean and pliable,” Clean Bhutan project coordinator, Nedup Tshering, said.

A budget of Nu 20M will be mobilised through contributions from financial institutions, corporations, tour operators and the business community for cleaning the routes. “I’ve been assured support from these sectors,” Nedup Tshering said.

The routes will be cleaned thrice a year – before the start of the trekking season, during the season and after the trekking season.

He said the local community, tour operators and others would be involved in cleaning the routes, while a youth volunteer from the project will be advocating behavioural change in people.

Trekking is a part of nature-based tourism activity, with the duration varying from a night to about 40 nights of walks in the mountains and through the villages.

Although known for its pristine nature, cultural tourism overshadows trekking by a huge margin, with most tourists visiting the country for culture. About 7.20 percent of the 54,685 international visitors in 2012 comprise trekking tourists, records with the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) show.

Trekking is usually done in spring and autumn, right after winter and monsoon.

From next year, the project will clean trekking routes in central and eastern Bhutan.  For this, discussions with the dzongkhag education officers (DEOs) and school principals have been held, said project officials.

“The DEOs and principals could be the focal persons,” Nedup Tshering said, adding they were the right group to help advocate or mobilise manpower, with population being sparsely distributed in these areas.

Nedup Tshering said he wanted to involve schools, principals and DEOs, as cleanliness was something that had to be inculcated at homes and not just schools.

Clean Bhutan has recruited 20 volunteers, who would be paid a token fee.

Over the years, garbage has become a major issue that the tourism industry has been trying to address.  Except for a few cleaning campaigns, none of the agencies responsible for tourism has taken up the responsibility to manage waste.

Association of Bhutanese tour operators’ executive director, Sonam Dorji, said, with garbage issue being a perennial one, such an initiative was long overdue. “Garbage is one of the major and frequent complaints from tourists,” he said.

Sonam Dorji said the tourism stakeholders did conduct cleaning campaigns, while the ad hoc ones didn’t help much. “We’re in need of a long term solution,” he said.

Tour operators said the aesthetics of a country also depends on the cleanliness aspect.  They are hopeful this project won’t be another ‘white elephant.’

Some routes, tour operators said, had trash bins, but the problem of emptying them was an issue. “The bins would be overflowing most of the time and, even if we put it back, where do we dump it,” said one.

Tour operators said that, besides the rivers and trekking trails, Clean Bhutan should also focus on towns and settlements. “As towns and settlements are where all tourist amenities are,” a tour operator said.

Due to the severity of the garbage issue, many of the major tour operators have been monitoring their own trekking waste.  For instance, tour companies have made it mandatory for the trekking group to bring back packages, bottles and wastes from the trek, by taking note of what has been taken.

By Kinga Dema

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