How safe is it to visit Nepal?

Gavin Kelleher, Regional Security Coordinator for Asia Pacific at Healix International comments on the risks involved when visiting Nepal.

Situation report

Overall, we consider Nepal to be a MODERATE risk country, although this risk is elevated in the southern Terai region where we assess the risk to be HIGH. Most travellers will be travelling to Pokhara, before heading into the Himalayas to take part in popular trekking routes. Business travellers are most likely to be based in Kathmandu, and very few foreigners will venture further south.

In general Nepal is a relatively safe country, and Nepalese people are some of the friendliest I have met. Yet, when I visited in July this year, it was very easy to accidentally stray into the riskier areas of the big cities. As I headed south into the Terai and towards the Nepali-Indian border crossings, these risks were elevated significantly and finding a secure hotel became a much more arduous task. Travellers heading south should seek itinerary-specific advice in advance of the trip, and ensure that secure accommodation has been arranged ahead of time.

Primary Risks

Natural Disasters
The risk posed by natural disasters is extreme, as Nepal is located within a majorly active seismic zone. In April 2015, a 7.8M earthquake killed over 4,300 people in Nepal and triggered avalanches and flooding. Hundreds of aftershocks followed when a second major 7.3M earthquake struck, causing further fatalities and extensive damage. While significant earthquakes can occur anywhere in Nepal, they have the biggest impact in the northern Himalayas region and central hilly region, where Kathmandu and Pokhara are located. The southern Terai region is typically impacted by earthquakes less owing to its make-up of low-lying flatlands, although consequent flooding and landslides can prove fatal. In addition, the monsoon season exacerbates these risks, running from June to September.

The risk of protests and unrest occurring is high across the country, and they can sometimes descend into violence. Protests, referred to locally as bandhs, often involve the shutdown of businesses and transport routes. Commonly these are invoked over economic grievances, such as rising fuel prices, and in the past they have caused severe shortages in the country owing to imports being blocked from crossing the Indian border. Unrest has led to fatal clashes with the security forces in the past, with this risk being highest in the Terai region.

There is a moderate risk of crime in Nepal, with petty crimes, such as pickpocketing, being the most common. While there is no significant trend of violent crime towards travellers, sexual assaults against foreigners have taken place in the past, and local nationals are increasingly reporting sexual assaults taking place on public buses in Nepal. The risk of crime is elevated to high in the Terai region, where the capability of security forces is lower and criminal networks operate with little interference.

Additional Risks

Corruption is endemic in Nepal, including across the police force. Less ranking officers, such as police constables, are likely to solicit bribes or ‘unofficial payments’ if they think that travellers are carrying large amounts of cash with them. In the event that crime does occur these police officers are largely ineffective and unhelpful at reporting the crime or acting upon it, and will often use the opportunity to solicit bribes for filing a police report.

Separately, road safety is poor and buses regularly overturn across the country, including on the highway between Pokhara and Kathmandu. Intercity road links often cross mountainous or hilly territory, and there are few barriers to prevent vehicles from falling off the road. Landslides also commonly occur on these roads, and while there are projects underway to reduce the landslide risk in some places, this is still largely incomplete.

Healix Advice

Maintain a low profile. Avoid overt displays of wealth, including expensive jewellery and clothing. Expensive equipment, including laptops and cameras, can draw attention to you and may increase the likelihood of you being targeted by criminal actors. While pedestrian travel is generally fine in very central areas of Kathmandu and Pokhara, you should use a local driver or taxi service during hours of darkness.

Know how to respond to an earthquake. Falling debris pose the biggest risk during an earthquake and your immediate response should be to identify potential hazards and protect yourself from them. If an earthquake occurs when you are inside a building adopt the ‘drop, cover, hold’ approach and shelter under a sturdy table or bed, using pillows or your arms to protect your head. If you are outside, you should move away from buildings and electricity lines into an open space, and sit on the floor until the shaking has stopped. Expect aftershocks in the coming hours and days, and take care against entering damaged buildings.

Monitor local media and our Travel Oracle alerts before and during your trip: this will enable you to be alerted to periods of heightened tension, planned protests and any incidents of violent unrest ongoing while you are in-country. The Nepali Times and The Himalayan are also reliable English-language resources for staying up to date with national news. Knowing where protests are occurring will allow you to plan your journeys to avoid these, and can also allow you to choose your hotel more strategically to minimise your risk exposure.

Seek itinerary specific advice before travelling. Sharing a copy of your trip details with your assistance provider will allow them to offer you personalised security advice, based on numerous factors such as your profile, destination and dates of travel. They will be able to let you know about upcoming events such as planned protests or anniversaries that could trigger unrest. Your security provider should also be able to advise you of the comparatively safer areas of the location(s) you are visiting, in order to assist you when making accommodation plans.

How Healix can help employers with their duty of care

Before any business travel, employers should ensure that they are providing their staff with access to up to date and quality information on the security environment of the country that they are visiting. Through a subscription to our Travel Oracle website and app, employers can provide their workforces with on demand (and on the move) access to the intelligence and real-time updates that they need to stay safe.

Moreover, for staff that are likely to be based in Nepal in the medium-to-long-term, employers should ensure that they have adequate evacuation and emergency response plans in place should another serious natural disaster occur. Healix is able to deploy at short notice to carry out detailed assessments and create bespoke evacuation and response plans for your employees. Our experienced team of regional specialists will ensure that your organisation is prepared for the worst case scenario, and can respond quickly and effectively should it happen.

What are the health risks in Nepal?

Contributed by Dr. Simon Worrell, Head of Medical Communications, Healix International.

Following the advent of packaged adventure holidays, Nepal now attracts around 100,000 people each year for hiking and climbing, as well as for more cultural pursuits. For these travellers especially, the effects of altitude should be well understood before arriving in Nepal. As the oxygen starts to become scarce at high altitudes, all hikers will start to breathe faster, becoming easily exhausted with minimal exertion. If such altitudes are attained too rapidly, however, life-threatening complications can result. These include the lungs filling with fluid, and the brain swelling; not things you’d wish to occur thousands of meters up a mountainside. Although there is medication that can make mountain sickness less likely, the most important precaution is to gain height slowly, taking-off some days to rest at altitude before travelling higher. Clearly, an honest evaluation of your own health before travelling is essential: even if hiking to Everest base camp has been a lifelong ambition, it might not be for everyone. Other precautions that are well advised when in Nepal, include following strict food and water safety. Diarrhoeal illnesses will dampen more than the hiker’s enthusiasm, potentially making further trekking impossible. Only drink bottled or boiled water, and eat well-cooked food. In fact, many hikers advocate a vegetarian diet during treks if the source of the food is at all questionable.

For those on business in Nepalese cities, or travellers enjoying more sedate pastimes, it is advisable to eat only in reputable restaurants, shunning street food. As mosquitos are commonly found at lower altitudes, it is important to avoid being bitten to reduce the chance of diseases such as dengue fever. Packing a DEET-containing spray is essential. Other preparations needed before travelling include getting vaccinated for diphtheria, hepatitis A, tetanus and typhoid, although more immunisations may be required if in rural Nepal, or staying in-country for an extended time. For relatively straight-forward medical problems, there are a couple of well-known private hospitals in Kathmandu, but should a serious medical emergency occur, it is likely that travellers will need to be moved to a healthcare facility outside of Nepal: the basic standard of local medical care being far below Western standards. If the patient has an Indian visa, then removal to one of Delhi’s excellent hospitals for further care may be possible. In practice, this rarely happens, however, necessitating long air ambulance flights to Bangkok or Dubai. As ever, travel insurance is a life-saver.

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