Mustang region of Nepal threatens to bar tourists

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The Independent Travel

Residents of a remote former kingdom in the Himalayas that has been part of Nepal for more than two centuries said Friday they would bar tourists from entry to protest against the government.

Upper Mustang, which lies on Nepal's northern border with Tibet, only opened to tourists in 1992 and remains a restricted area, with visitors required to apply for a special 500-dollar pass to enter the remote region.

Around 2,000 tourists now travel there every year, mostly to visit the ancient city of Lo Manthang, home to Mustang's former king Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista, who lost his royal title in 2008 after Nepal became a republic.

But residents of the region, who practise Buddhism rather than the more widespread Hinduism and are ethnically closer to Tibetans than to Nepalese, say they see few of the benefits of the influx of tourists.

"Upper Mustang has been left behind because the government does not care about development in this region," said local youth leader Lopsang Chhomphel Bista.

"We will bar foreign tourists from coming from October 1 in protest against the government's failure to address our demands."

Bista said the government had broken a promise to spend 60 percent of the revenue from the tourist passes on Upper Mustang, one of the poorest and least-developed regions of Nepal.

However, a spokesman for the home ministry said no such promise had ever been made and criticised the plan to bar tourists, saying it would damage Nepal's reputation abroad.

Upper Mustang was annexed by Nepal in the late 18th century, but remained a separate principality ruled over by its own king until 1951.

The former royal city of Lo Manthang, high on the Tibetan plateau, was once a vital centre for trade between India and Tibet.

Around 500,000 foreign tourists visit Nepal every year, mostly from neighbouring India and China, and the government recently announced an ambitious plan to double that number to a million in 2011.

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