Thursday 27 June 2019

Mountain mafia 'blocking inquiry' into Nepal chopper rescue fraud

AIRLIFT RACKET: Mount Everest trekkers have been targeted
AIRLIFT RACKET: Mount Everest trekkers have been targeted

Nicola Smith & Ramu Sapkota

A powerful "mafia-like" syndicate operating within the Himalayan trekking industry is threatening to derail a government investigation into a scam involving the poisoning of tourists.

It was revealed last year that parts of the tourist industry had conspired to poison hikers to reap insurance payouts for costly and unnecessary airlifts from Everest and other peaks.

An alliance of international insurers threatened to pull cover for the country by Friday if its government did not crack down on the elaborate scam. However, government and industry officials told reporters that authorities may be so intertwined with a corrupt network that any investigation would be likely to be a whitewash.

"The government does not seem so serious about investigating because it is trapped by the mafias of the tourism sector," said Speed Kaji Sherpa, the Everest speed-climbing record holder and vice-president of Nepal Mountaineers. He said Sherpa guides were so upset by government inaction that many were ready to go on hunger strike.

Ang Tshering Sherpa, another high-profile community leader, described the "rescue racket" in Business 360 magazine as one of the "biggest evils" facing the tourism industry. An initial expose last year revealed that in extreme cases, guides had spiked the food of vulnerable trekkers with large amounts of baking soda, which can cause vomiting and diarrhoea, to coerce them into rescues.

According to The Kathmandu Post, other disclosures in the report, which was not made public, included unscrupulous tour operators making multiple claims for a single helicopter ride, and inflating the costs of travel and medical treatment. One insurance company was reportedly billed €86,000 after an agent issued two bills for the same rescue. An example of a $24,000 invoice for minor treatment in a hospital was also cited.

The authorities have confirmed that rescue fraud exists, but are keen to downplay its overall impact. Krishna Prasad Devkota, secretary of Nepal's ministry of culture, tourism and civil aviation, claimed the number of rescues had fallen since the fraud was exposed. But he acknowledged that "high-profile" people were involved in the scam and were being investigated by police and tax authorities.

However, in a frank admission, he implied that Nepal's political instability may be hampering progress and that his own job could be on the line. "I will not be silent... when I am sitting in this chair, I cannot afford any compromise," he said. But he added: "Maybe they will try to sack me."

The ultimatum for insurers to pull out of the region by Friday came from Traveller Assist, a Dublin-based medical assistance company representing three global insurance underwriters.

Jonathan Bancroft, its managing director, said his firm had "identified two clear networks of fraudulent providers" controlled by "only 10 very influential people with close ties to the government". The scam cost insurers millions, placing the safety of countless travellers in jeopardy, he said.

The Nepalese government produced a 700-page report in September. However, Mr Bancroft said that despite a tourism ministry pledge to "eliminate" intermediaries who cheated tourists, "not a single charge has yet been laid". He added: "Please don't be under any illusion that the fraud has stopped. It has not."

Traveller Assist said more than 1,600 helicopter rescues had occurred in Nepal from January to August last year. Of 1,000 invoices issued to insurers during that period, it alleged that 34pc were fraudulent and the company calculated that this had cost insurers some $4m in losses.


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