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Nepal trekking industry in damage control mode

Nepal trekking industry in damage control mode

The Tourism Ministry cracks down on fake rescues, plans to counter negative publicity

Sharad Ojha
January 31, 2019

Responding to a slew of reports in the international media about insurance fraud in the trekking industry, the Nepal government says it is cracking down on perpetrators, while planning action against an insurance investigator said to be behind the sustained negative coverage.

Reports this week in The New York Times and The Independent quote a letter written to Minister of Tourism Rabindra Adhikari by Jonathan Bancroft, Managing Director of Traveller Assist, in which he has threatened to get his clients to cut coverage if Nepal does not press charges against 17 trekking agencies, helicopter companies and hospitals it says are involved in claiming insurance for fake rescues.

Both stories quote Danny Kaine of Traveller Assist, who is said to have personally delivered the letter to the ministry in which Bancroft bluntly writes: ‘To be clear, this is an ultimatum! If our clients stop issuing travel insurance policies in Nepal … (it) will have a devastating effect on the tourism industry in Nepal, and your country’s reputation.’ (See box below.)

The government appears to be taking the damaging media coverage seriously, and called an emergency meeting in Singha Darbar on Tuesday with Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari, representatives of the Ministry of Finance, the Central Bureau of Investigation and others.

Adhikari told Nepali Times: “We are committed to cracking down on insurance fraud, and set up a Committee last year to investigate. After that, the number of cases of helicopter rescues, especially unnecessary ones, had actually started to drop. Which is why we are concerned by the continued leaks to the international press, and the threatening tone of this letter.”

The Ministry of Tourism says its statistics show that there were only 186 helicopter rescues in the autumn trekking season last year, a sharp drop from the 1,532 between March and May of 2018. (See graph below.)

In the letter to the minister, Bancroft says his company had issued the 15 February deadline since ‘not a single charge has been laid’ on the companies named in the ministry’s report, which it said were still in business.

The incidence of fraudulent rescues claiming insurance has risen in the past four years, as reported by this newspaper and others. Some trekking companies, in collusion with helicopter charters and hospitals, entice trekkers to opt for medical evacuation at an inflated fee, and share the profits. There have even been rumours of guides deliberately spiking the food of trekkers so they fall sick.

Stung by the flurry of reports, the Tourism Ministry set up an investigation committee which issued its report in August. The Ministry then drafted new rules governing search, rescue, and treatment of trekkers to check fraud.

However, Tourism Ministry officials themselves admit that the rules have not been enforced because of a lack of manpower. Says Secretary Krishna Devkota: “We are committed to investigate and take action against the guilty. These scams are having a negative impact on the industry ahead of Visit Nepal 2020.”

A source at the Tourism Ministry disclosed that last August, after the investigation committee presented its report, a delegation led by Nabaraj Dahal of Trekking Agents Association of Nepal met the co-Chair of the ruling NCP Pushpa Kamal Dahal who then put pressure on Minister Adhikari to let those named off the hook.

Some of the unscrupulous companies involved in the scam enjoy high-level political protection because they are party donors, offer free helicopter rides during elections, or provide complimentary hospital treatment.

Prakash C Lohani of Alpine Rescue Service which represents half the foreign insurers says: “The rescue business needs to be better regulated. We need to punish the guilty, and stop maligning the whole trekking industry.”

Those involved in fake rescues play on the grey zone in which even physicians are not able to tell if a patient suffering from altitude sickness or severe diarrhoea needs immediate evacuation or will get better by simply descending and taking medicine. Many trekkers themselves agree to be evacuated at the slightest sign of trouble.

Source: Nepali Times

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