The tiny airport at Lukla, perched on the edge of a mountain high in Nepal’s Himalayas, usually echoes with the roar of propeller planes flying a constant stream of adventure-seekers into the small town, known as the gateway to Mount Everest.
During the peak spring tourist season, tens of thousands of trekkers and mountaineers arrive to test themselves on the popular trek to Everest base camp and perhaps go on to climb the world’s highest peak.
But these days all is quiet in Lukla.
The decision by the Nepal government last week to cancel all trekking and climbing permits and end on-arrival visas for visitors in the face of the coronavirus pandemic has brought the flow of tourists to an abrupt halt.
“Things are looking bad. We used to get up to 60 flights a day in the peak season and twice as many helicopters. Now we are hardly receiving 10 to 12 planes,” said airport chief Emanath Adhikari.
Trekking and climbing are a vital source of revenue for one of the poorest countries in Asia. Almost 1.2 million tourists visited Nepal in 2018, bringing in more than £570m ($658 million).
More than a million jobs are generated by tourism in Nepal, according to the World Tourism and Travel Council.
The government’s announcement has been backed by leading figures in Nepal’s tourism industry. Mingma Sherpa, director of Seven Summit Treks, one of Nepal’s most successful expedition companies, said: “No doubt our business will suffer but who will be responsible if the virus spreads on the mountain? The mountain is not moving anywhere. People can come and climb next year.”
But for those who make a living along the major trekking routes – porters, guides and guesthouse owners – the decision has come as a devastating blow.
“The coronavirus has turned everything upside down,” said Lhakpa Tshiring Sherpa, who runs the Hiker’s Inn in Lukla. “Everyone is suffering, but for hoteliers it’s been a double hit. We stockpile everything in advance as it is very costly to buy and transport foodstuffs during the peak season. It’s cost me a fortune. What do I do with it now?”
In January, the government launched its Visit Nepal 2020 campaign, hoping to attract two million visitors, but that too has been suspended.
The campaign had raised expectations that this would be a lucrative year for business, said Suman Rai, a porter in the town. “We were hoping that there would be plenty of work for everybody but the coronavirus has shattered everything. There is hardly any work at the moment except some menial labor,” he said.