How to travel responsibly in Nepal: everything you need to know
Looking for tips on how to explore Nepal thoroughly, while minimising your overall tourism impact? Our guide has everything you need to know about responsible travel in Nepal, including choosing sustainable tour operators, reducing your plastic, and how to empower women and support local communities while you’re there.
The first time the two of us really questioned our environmental impact was in Nepal in 2016.
Specifically, on a bridge in Kathmandu overlooking the Bagmati river, watching aghast as a river thick with plastic, trash, and human sewage coursed its way under our feet.
We were horrified.
When we got home that night to see no less than 10 empty 1.5L water bottles lined up against the wall of our hotel room, it hit us: we were just as much a part of the problem. Needless to say, we knew then that we needed to make some pretty drastic changes to the way we travelled and lived.
We’ve also been back to beautiful Nepal a number of times since — it’s our absolute favourite country in the world — and while (thankfully!) there have been huge strides made in cleaning rivers and managing waste, there are still a few responsible travel tips and things to know that all traveller to Nepal should be aware of.
From how you can empower women and respect local customs, to how to trek with care and support local business, this guide to responsible travel in Nepal is full of absolutely everything you need to travel in a way that’s ‘good for all’; ourselves, the epic landscapes, and incredibly kind, welcoming Nepali people.
responsible travel in Nepal: the ultimate guide
Responsible travel - what is it?
Responsible tourism is all about having an active awareness about the effect that travel has on destinations and cultures around the world; positive and negative.
It’s about considering your own impact and that of the travel providers you choose, and taking responsibility for ensuring that every facet of your travels, from the transport you take, the places you stay, the way you interact, and the companies and governments you support, are as sustainable as possible.
It’s about travelling with awareness, kindness, and mutual respect for the world around you, making small choices with big impacts, and at least attempting to leave no trace of your wanderings.
READ | Learn more about responsible tourism here
Responsible travel in Nepal: Trekking
We’ve already written a suuuuuper comprehensive guide with everything you need to know about responsible trekking in Nepal (you can read it here), but in short, the issues around hiking and sustainability here are varied and complex.
Is trekking in Nepal EVEN still ethical?
As visitor numbers continually increase, particularly in the Everest and Annapurna regions, so too do the problems that accompany them: littering and pollution, overtourism and crowding on trails, exploitation of local porters and guides, and environmental and cultural degradation.
So is it still ethical to trek in Nepal? We believe yes.
In our opinion, trekking in Nepal boosts the local economy and raises the standard of living significantly in one of Asia’s poorest nations.
Not only should we not boycott it, we should actively be encouraging our fellow travellers to travel there. But we need to ensure that we’re encouraging them to trek in a responsible, respectful manner; one that considers their impact and works to benefit locals, the mountains, and tourists alike.
In that way, you can support Nepal’s largest industry (tourism) in a healthy way, while not partaking in its unethical side.
Here are our top tips to make that happen:
| Travel with an ethical trekking company |
When booking your trek, ensure that you’re signing on with a company that reflects your own values (we travel with G Adventures).
Ask them about their environmental policies whilst on the trek, whether single-use plastic and waste management is a concern for them, and whether their staff (particularly porters) are paid fair wages, health benefits, and are given adequate trekking provisions and equipment.
| Respect your porters and ensure they’re treated fairly |
Ensure that you’re supporting your porters by booking your tour with an organisation that provides its porters with the following: weather-appropriate clothing and protection, fair and stable basic pay, proper shelter and food provision whilst on trek, weight carrying restrictions and medical care.
While we’re at it, if you decide to book a porter independently please don’t ask them to carry more weight for an extra fee.
Respect that porters rely on being able to carry weight for their livelihoods; don't risk injuring them or their ability to support their families.
| Trek at the tail end of the trekking season |
Trekking at the tail end of the peak trekking seasons will take the pressure of over-tourism and resource consumption off communities along the trek, as well as providing you with a more relaxed, enjoyable experience.
| Opt to trek less-popular trails |
We’ve all seen the images of traffic jams on Everest, as climbers wait their turn in the death zone to reach the summit. While that’s an extreme example considering most leisure trekkers will never end up anywhere near those peaks, overcrowding is still very much a concern for the popular Everest Base Camp trek and the Annapurna region.
Avoid contributing to over tourism and waste management issues by option for a lesser-known hike like the Mohare Danda, Upper Dolpo, Kanchenjunga, and Mardi Himal treks. This also has the added benefit of spreading wealth more equally amongst Nepal’s rural communities.
| Stick to the trails and leave no trace |
A single wrong step off the trail by a boot can take years to regenerate again, which literally expands the impact of your footsteps long after you’ve gone home and the aches in your legs have dissipated.
Leave the mountains are mother nature made them: stick to the marked trails, wait till you can go to the toilet at a teahouse instead of in nature, don’t litter, and pick up any trash you see along the way too.
| Don’t barter for your accommodation in exchange for purchasing food |
We’ve previously encountered travellers gloating about bargaining with teahouse operators to give them free accommodation in exchange for purchasing food in the mountains. Please, don’t be those travellers.
Recognise the privilege that comes with being able to travel to Nepal and hike through its landscape (yes, even as a ‘poor’ backpacker!), and that many of the communities here rely upon the income made from tourism for survival. Empower communities, don't exploit them.
READ | If you’re keen to know more about accommodation in Nepal, check out our guide here
Responsible travel guide to Nepal: People
Don’t buy weed
In Kathmandu particularly, you can barely take more than a few steps before being harassed by a tout asking if you want some hash.
Aside from being super annoying after a while, on our recent trip in May this year, we also saw a worrying number of very young kids touting it too, which means it’s obviously become an easy way for criminals and gangs to entice young, vulnerable children away from their education and into crime.
Buying weed from these sellers directly funds this, which is no good for anybody. And if you’re that desperate - it grows pretty wild all over the country, particularly in the lower reaches of the Annapurna region…!
Do your research before volunteering
Wanting to give back to the communities you visit on your travels is a really kind-hearted and admirable gesture.
However, while numerous organisations globally work hard to make meaningful, sustainable contributions to their community, there are just as many that, unfortunately, exist solely to profit off our ‘do-gooder’ instincts. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but sometimes our well-intentioned voluntourism actually does a lot more harm than good.
In a country like Nepal, still grappling with issues of extreme poverty, gender inequality, and of course, the ongoing recovery from the 2015 earthquake, it’s absolutely imperative that you do your research thoroughly if you decide you simply must volunteer your time while there.
Look for organisations that:
Are reputable, ethically-driven, and sustainably-minded
Are focused on empowering community groups from within, rather than creating a cycle of dependency
Don’t offer short placements or disruptive visits, particularly when vulnerable children are involved
Do offer roles that are aligned with the type of work you want to do, or the
Are transparent and honest about where donor money goes
In our view, supporting volunteer organisations by attending a social enterprise’s workshop or class (look at our empowering women section below for more information!), donating gear (e.g. to the Nepal Porter’s Association), or making donations to social enterprises employing local staff is far more beneficial to Nepali people anyway.
Choose organisations that empower women and children
Tourism that also empowers women and works towards gender equality is incredibly relevant - and necessary - in countries like Nepal, where a woman’s role has remained very traditional and the society is still highly patriarchal. Did you know that in most regions of the world, women make up the majority (up to 60%) of the tourism workforce, but tend to be concentrated in the lowest status, lowest/unpaid roles? These include cleaning, cooking, and unpaid work in family tourism businesses.
Gender equality is a hugely important step not just in improving human rights, but also in achieving sustainable progress for developing nations. After all, women make up half of the population, and if their voices, skills, and talents aren’t recognised appropriately, no society can develop to its full potential.
How can you support women on your next trip to Nepal (and beyond)?
Seek out and actively support female-led businesses, tours, cafes, etc
Travel with brands like G Adventures, who actively support social enterprise on all of their tours through the Planeterra Foundation
Purchase local handicrafts and gifts from women’s cooperatives (this also helps to keep traditional crafts alive!)
Visit social enterprises (we’ve listed our favourite ones in Nepal below!) that focus on empowering and supporting female empowerment
Here are a few of our favourite social enterprises focused on female empowerment in Nepal:
| SASANE |
SASANE (Samrakshak Samuha Nepal) is a survivor-led organisation that combats human trafficking (a major issue in Nepal) by training its survivors as paralegals.
When they graduate, they work placements in police stations in Kathmandu and Pokhara, and in turn, become the first point of contact for other female victims. SASANE also run outreach and education programs across rural villages in an attempt to prevent trafficking at the source too.
SASANE also worked with Planeterra (G Adventures foundation) to launch the Sisterhood of Survivors program, where travellers can join the women for a traditional mo:mo dumpling and thali lunch-making class, and the SASANE Sisterhood trekking program, which trains survivors as trekking guides and tour operators.
| PANAUTI COMMUNITY HOMESTAY PROJECT |
One of our all-time favourite experiences in Nepal was visiting the Panauti Community Homestay project (read about our visit here), which brings travellers to Panauti, a small village in the foothills of the Kathmandu Valley, for a few nights to experience like in a real, rural Nepalese community.
What’s more, it’s female-led, empowers women to move beyond the home and their family duties to take a more active role in society, and empowers them as business women and community leaders in a traditionally patriarchal society.
| 3SISTERS ADVENTURE TREKKING |
Another female-led organisation that’s turning the traditionally male-dominated trekking industry on its head, 3Sisters Adventure Trekking trains women from disadvantaged backgrounds to become guides.
In doing so, they empower marginalised women to become financially and socially independent, and self-sufficient, and confident decision makers. Trekking with a female-led, female-operated company like this helps to change the world, one woman and girl at a time.
| SEVEN WOMEN NEPAL |
In Kathmandu, we took a cooking class at Seven Women , a social enterprise working to empower marginalised and disabled Nepalese women through skills training and literacy classes.
For Nepali women, the kitchen is the heart of the home and we discovered that it gives them a great sense of pride to share their food, culture and traditions with travellers from around the world.
During our class, we learned how to make traditional Nepali dishes, including a proper Nepalese curry (Dal Bhat!) from scratch using fresh local ingredients from Kathmandu Valley - and it was delicious! Book your cooking class here
Don’t give money or gifts to beggars (particularly kids)
We know it’s well-intentioned and comes from a kind-hearted place, but nothing makes us more frustrated than seeing other travellers give money, pends, chocolate, and gifts to beggars and street kids.
Do not ever give money, pens, chocolate, or gifts to beggars.
In fact, this is one of the worst things you can do as a responsible traveller.
Giving money to child beggars actively encourages kids to beg, which in turn keeps them out of school, places them in danger by perpetuating the belief that tourists are safe and wealthy, and encourages organised begging syndicates and human trafficking groups to kidnap (and sometimes disfigure) young, vulnerable children to work for them.
Giving candy can cause health issues in a country where access to dental hygiene and medical attention is lower for disadvantaged locals, and pens or toys are likely to be resold for cash.
We know it’s heartbreaking, we know you wish there was something you could do to help. But the most constructive thing you can do in those moments is NOT giving money, but investing your time and effort into a social enterprise uplifting these societies from within.
Pay fairly and bargain respectfully
Guys, we totally get it - we don't want to be ripped off when we travel either. We’ve been to enough places now to know there's a different price for locals and tourists in many countries around the world, and that haggling is part of culture for many of those.
One of the greatest reasons to travel around in Nepal (or anywhere!) is that you can help to distribute money into rural communities and towns that may otherwise have gone without.
While bargaining in markets and haggling prices is super commonplace, be fair and respectful about how low you force the locals you're haggling with to go.
Aim to pay the fairest price, not the cheapest, and remember fun interaction and a few dollars to you can often also unwittingly carve away a chunk of a shop owner’s much-relied-upon income.
By being able to travel, you’re already privileged - the least you can do is pay that forward by positively supporting the livelihoods of those locals whose home you’re visiting.
Be respectful when photographing
Nepal is an extremely photogenic destination. From the epic landscapes (think thick jungles, chaotic cities, and soaring mountain peaks), right through to the extremely welcoming people, fascinating culture, and plenty of wild animals, there’s something guaranteed to catch your eye at every turn.
Before you go clicking the shutter though, there are a few things to know about responsible photography in Nepal. This is a culturally conservative country, and the majority of the population are deeply religious or spiritual.
Always ask permission before photographing local people, (particularly the older generation), and be aware that photography is banned in many temples and religiously significant sites.
To photograph responsibly wherever you are in the world is to place yourself in the subject’s shoes, and think about whether you’d feel it was appropriate if someone took a similar photo of you.
Would you be okay with you or your loved ones being snapped in that moment? Is the shot morally or ethically inappropriate, or exploitative in any way (ie of children, or locals ‘down on their luck’)? Did you seek permission? If you can’t answer all of these questions honestly, then you might need to rethink your shot.
Shop, stay, and eat local
By choosing to sleep, eat, and travel like a local, you support local families and economy, keep money within Nepal, drastically reduce your carbon footprint, and also tend to have a much richer, more authentic travel experience.
Where possible, stay in locally-owned guest houses instead of large, foreign-owned energy-intensive hotels, take local public transport instead of hiring a private car, and buy from local grocers, shopkeepers and craftspeople.
A few of our favourite locally-owned, sustainable hotels in Kathmandu are:
Nepal Pavillion hotel | Pretty much our favourite place to stay in Kathmandu, this quaint, Newari-style hotel has beautiful rooms, is located in the heart of Thamel and has the most wonderful hosts; a few brothers who have worked tirelessly to bring their vision for a locally-owned, designed, and culturally-focused hotel to life.
BOOK | Check prices and availability here
Traditional Comfort Hotel | Large, clean rooms, brilliant morning breakfast, and a commitment to only working with local suppliers and craftspeople, Hotel Traditional Comfort really is a comfortable, enjoyable stay. Located just outside of Thamel, but far quieter in the evening which is a big bonus.
BOOK | Check prices and availability here
READ | We’ve written a guide to the best places to stay in Kathmandu, check it out here
Responsible travel in Nepal: Culture
BE AWARE OF TEMPLE CUSTOMS
Nepal is a deeply spiritual and religious country. When visiting its holy sites and temples, it’s important to take note of a few basic customs to show your respect:
Always navigate clockwise around temples - and yes, that means walk around the temple again to get to something behind you, if needed!
Always remove your shoes when entering temples or a local’s home. Shoes are considered the most degrading form of clothing, so this is an important one
Some temples are only accessible to those who follow Hinduism or Buddhism. Make sure you read the signage before you go ahead and walk in
Always check if it’s alright to take photographs inside temples - this is generally sacred ground, and while some will allow it, others will ask you to put your camera away
Keep your displays of affection to a minimum (as in, don’t have them here at all), and keep your voice down
Respect the local culture
Nepal is culturally quite conservative, and much of the local customs are tied up in their deep spirituality and religious belief.
Respect that other people and places may view the world very differently to you and that their customs might feel unfamiliar or uncomfortable as you experience them. But just because something is different or you don’t agree with it, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s wrong or your way is better.
Treat locals how you’d wish to be treated as a guest, take your cues from how they behave and dress (no short shorts outside of Thamel!), avoid getting too drunk or obnoxious, and always travel with respect at the heart of your adventures here.
Learn the customs around food
Get ready for some insanely mouthwatering food on your travels to Nepal! One of the things we love best about travelling here is that it’s not just polite to eat with your hands here, but expected. We’re all for throwing our cutlery in the air and eating exactly how our parents told us not to! Here are a few other things to know about eating in Nepal though:
Most meals are eaten on the floor
Always wash your hands before and after eating
Always eat with your right hand - the left is considered dirty
Never take food with your left hand either
Never take or eat food off someone else’s plate
If you drink from a communal jug, never let it touch your mouth (just tilt your head back and pour)
Let your host or waiter know that you’ve finished eating - they’ll keep putting items on your plate otherwise!
Food waste is considered impolite and bad luck, so be sure you can eat everything on your plate!
Responsible travel guide to Nepal: planet + environment
Say no to plastic
Unfortunately, while tourism has brought many good things to Nepal in the last few decades, an increase in processed foods and single-use plastic-packaging (led in part by demand from tourists) isn’t one of them.
Couple that with inadequate waste management and recycling systems, and you can imagine that the plastic issue can get pretty grim here.
Avoid contributing to the global plastic crisis (read why plastic is a huge travel problem here) by saying no to plastic and opting for the sustainable option when it comes to your snacks, toiletries, and drinks. Some of our favourite zero-waste swaps are:
Asking for no straw and using our own reusable metal straws instead
Reusable tote bags
Ordering soft drinks or juice in glass or can version (or going without if it’s not available)
Solid shampoo, bodywash, moisturiser
For the ladies: a menstrual cup
Reusable water bottles
If you’ve followed us for a while you know this is probably the #1 thing that frustrates us when we travel.
Repeat after us: modern travellers do not need to buy bottled water. Particularly when you realise that we humans binge on a million plastic bottles a minute, they take more than 400 years to break down, and you witness hundreds of them floating down the river underneath you as you stand on a bridge in Kathmandu.
We haven’t bought bottled water in nearly two years now, we drank tap water throughout Nepal (and India, Sri Lanka, and the Caucasus!) and we didn’t get sick from it once.
How? Our trusty The Grayl GEOPRESS water purification and filtration bottles. Seriously, invest in one of these bad boys and you’ll never go back to the plastic type again.
Avoid food waste
Food wastage is a huge problem for our planet, both for our global fight against climate change (did you know that if ‘food wastage’ was a country, it would rank third in the world for greenhouse gas emissions?!), and also because of the wasted labour and social inequality of those who desperately need food but can’t get it, and those who have too much and throw it away with abandon.
In countries like Nepal, food production systems aren’t always efficient and many farmers can’t afford the modern machinery that other countries can.
Then, there’s inadequate storage facilities and transport networks, which lead to spoiling en route to market (between 15-40%!), and the food waste that happens every single day at restaurants and households across the country.
When you consider that a significant portion of the population (around 21%, or 6 million people) live below the poverty line and struggle for food on a daily basis, over-ordering and then wasting the food that does make it to your plate seems like a pretty crappy thing to do.
Switch to Eco-friendly toiletries
Cut down on plastic waste and chemical run-off by switching to plastic-free biodegradable, natural ingredient toiletries that won’t add to waste left behind in
Switch to plastic-free, biodegradable, eco-friendly toiletries that won’t add to waste on the mountains, including: compostable toothbrushes, switching to solid shampoo, body wash, and soap bars (we use Lush and Ethique), using a menstrual cup, and toxin-free and biodegradable wipes.
Ethical tourism in Nepal: Animals
DON’T SUPPORT ANIMAL TOURISM in nepal
After four years on the road, we've discovered that just about every single animal attraction globally is a negative one, so our simple solution is to not support any of them.
In fact, it was during a guided morning safari in Nepal’s Chitwan National Park that we unhappily found ourselves at an unscheduled stop at the Sauraha Elephant Breeding Centre, where we witnessed rows of elephants rocking incessantly in their shackles and grunting in sheer distress, a mother chained by her two front legs desperately trying to reach out to her 12-day-old calf (also chained), others openly whipped and a baby struck on the head for ‘misbehaving’.
Sauraha falsely claims to be a breeding and conservation centre, but we can tell you they’re cruel, use elephants stolen from the nearby jungle, and merely train the elephants to become ride-givers in the equally cruel elephant ride industry in Chitwan.
Then, there were the horses along the Poon Hill trek, who stumbled along the steep and uneven paths that we humans were struggling with, blood clearly visible on wounds caused by ill fitting saddles and poorly shod shoes.
If you’re absolutely determined to get up close to a wild animal, we implore you to do thorough research through Google, Tripadvisor and guidebooks before you visit any animal attraction and only support those who are truly ethical.
READ | We’ve put together a guide on how to be an animal friendly traveller which you can read here.
PLANNING TO VISIT NEPAL?
We have a heap of essential reading before visiting or trekking in Nepal!
RESPONSIBLE TREKKING | Everything you need to know about how to trek ethically in Nepal
ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT | Everything you need to know before you hike the Annapurna Circuit
ANNAPURNA CIRCUIT PACKING LIST | Everything you need to pack for the Annapurna Circuit
KATHMANDU GUIDE | Our essential guide to the best of Kathmandu
THE BEST OF NEPAL | The top things to see and do in Nepal
NEPAL TRAVEL TIPS | Everything you need to know before visiting Nepal
TRAVEL INSURANCE | Don’t leave home without travel insurance (seriously, don’t!). Click here to get the best deals with World Nomads, our trusted travel insurance provider
PHOTOGRAPHY | Love our photography? Wondering what gear we use to get all of our photos around the world? Click here to view our detailed photography gear guide, as well as our top travel photography tips!
ECO FRIENDLY PACKING ESSENTIALS | Don’t leave home without our favourite eco-friendly travel essentials
We hope you find this guide helpful when it comes to your own responsible travels in Nepal.
Do you have any other tips for sustainable travel in Nepal? We'd love to hear from you in the comments below!