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Nepal Hopes for Revenue Boon with Two More Crossings into Tibet

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 2003/08/21; August 21, 2003.]

KATHMANDU, Aug 10 (AFP) - Nepal and China are hoping to boost trade and tourism through the possible opening up of two ancient Himalayan crossings and allowing helicopters to travel from the kingdom to a major Hindu pilgrimage site in Tibet.

An agreement to make tourism easier was signed last week by a visiting delegation from Chinese-ruled Tibet and Nepal's tourism and civil aviation ministry, although any deal still needs approval from Beijing, officials said.

Nepal has only one land crossing with Tibet and thoughts of opening more have come and gone in the past. But officials say Nepal wants to increase trade and sees a new urgency as Beijing and New Delhi move to reopen an international border between Tibet and the Indian state of Sikkim just east of the kingdom.

Nepal imports 83.3 million dollars worth of goods each year through its Kodari border post with Tibet and earns around 20 million dollars in customs revenue, according to official figures.

The proposed new border posts would be at Kerung and Nangpa La, 224 kilometers (140 miles) and 268 kilometers (162 miles) respectively northeast of Kathmandu.

Both mark age-old pathways between Nepal and Tibet. Nangpa La is the pass through which the Sherpas, the mountain people famed for their vital roles on Mount Everest expeditions, were believed to have migrated to Nepal hundreds of years ago.

"The Tibetan delegation was positive towards our proposals, which is a significant achievement, although no firm commitment was made," said Shanker Koirala, a tourism ministry official who led the Nepalese delegation at the talks.

"The Tibetan team said it was unable to finalize deals without permission of the central government of China," Koirala told AFP.

The two-day talks ended in a memorandum of understanding to promote tourism between Tibet and Nepal and to remove any obstacles for Hindu pilgrims visiting 6,740-meter (22,110-foot) Mount Kailash and nearby Mansarovar Lake in western Tibet.

Some 200,000 Indians travel each year to Mansarovar, reputed to be the abode of the god Shiva and a source for some of Hinduism's holiest rivers.

Nearly all pilgrims who make the arduous trek to Mansarovar travel on a structured package organized between the Indian and Chinese governments. Nepal proposed letting its helicopters go the holy sites.

"If Nepal gets permission to operate air or at least helicopter flights to Mansarovar and Kailash it will open new vistas in Nepal's tourism and Himalayan trekking industry," said Ang Tsering Sherpa, chairman of the Nepal Mountaineering Association.

"Currently we face problems operating helicopters to rescue any tourists who have gone to Tibet via Nepal as we need permission of Chinese authorities to go there," Sherpa said.

The Kodari border crossing is 113 kilometers (70 miles) northeast of Kathmandu. The road from the capital to the border was opened in 1967 and subsidized by China, which hoped to make it easier to trade with Nepal.

The border crossing is strictly controlled by China as Nepal is the only feasible route for Tibetans to flee to India, where Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has lived in exile since 1959.

Kathmandu and Tibet's capital Lhasa have direct flights but only on Chinese airlines.

Tibet used to have a border crossing at Nathu La with Sikkim. But the route has been closed since India annexed its former protectorate in 1975.

India and China agreed during Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's visit in June to Beijing to reopen Nathu La, in what Indian officials have called a tacit Chinese recognition of the Himalayan province as part of India.

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