Nepal to cut fees for off-season Everest climbers

KATHMANDU (Reuters) - Nepal will slash climbing fees for Mount Everest in the off-season to lure mountaineers to the world's tallest peak and boost tourism hit by years of a Maoist conflict, a senior minister said on Wednesday.

Dozens of mountaineering teams, each paying at least $70,000 (35,273 pounds), go to the 8,850-metre Everest summit during the main climbing season that runs from March to May.

But the giant mountain remains virtually deserted in the autumn and winter.

"We want to give incentives to off-season climbers to go to Mount Everest," Tourism Minister Prithvi Subba Gurung told Reuters in an interview.

"We are working on proposals to give a 50 percent royalty cut in the autumn and 75 percent during the winter climbing seasons."

The autumn climbing season runs from September to November and the winter season from December to January.

At least 520 climbers reached the summit of Mount Everest from Nepal and Tibet in this year's main climbing season, the highest number since the mountain was first scaled by New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay Sherpa in 1953.

Gurung said the royalty for the popular main climbing season would remain unchanged.

The president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association said similar financial incentives should also be given for other mountains.

"The government should also open hundreds of small mountain peaks on its border with Tibet to foreign climbers," Ang Tshering Sherpa added.

Nepal, home to eight of the world's 14 highest mountains, has more than 2,000 Himalayan peaks -- 326 of them open to foreign climbers.

Tourism accounts for about 4 percent of the impoverished nation's GDP.

But the number of visitors fell to about 280,000 last year, down from nearly half a million in 1999, due to a Maoist conflict that killed more than 13,000 people.

The Maoists ended their decade-long conflict last year, raising hopes more visitors would return.

Gurung said the government had set a target of attracting 600,000 visitors in the current fiscal year, which ends in mid-July 2008.

But analysts said a series of general strikes and transport shutdowns sponsored by former rebels and other groups, as well as an ethnic conflict in the country's fertile southern plains continued to plague tourism.

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