Jomosom as administrative and tourist center of the Mustang district

Remarks socio - economic development

by H. Benachib, A. Gerique, K. Werning


Jomosom, more correctly known as Dzong Sampa or New Fort, is situated in the Kali Gandaki Valley at an elevation of 2713 m. Here we find the Headquarters of the Mustang District and all the District government offices. It is a commercial center with government officials and merchants. As in the whole region, the Thakalis are the main ethnic group in Jomosom. There is a minority of Tangbetani and a few households of Kami and Damai (ACAP, 2000). In the last 40 years, Jomosom has witnessed important change, from a traditional Thakali village to a multifunctional and multiethnical townlike settlement (ref to the map: Jomosom - Settlement and Function Zones).

Historical Overview

For centuries the Kali Gandaki Valley was one of the most important trading routes between Tibet and the gangetic plains. Especially grain from India and the lower regions of Nepal and salt and wool from Tibet were transported. The Thakalis, well known for their trading skills, were involved in this salt trade and reached a high living standard (Graafen & Seeber, 1995).

Later, the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese army had dramatical socio-economic consequences for this region. Due to the closing of the borders in 1959, the ancient salt trade was nearly lost. It caused a shift of the remaining trade from big merchants to smaller operators. This shift was accelerated when the opening of a motorable road from Bhairawa to Pokhara brought cheap Indian salt right into the heart of the area that used to be served by the salt-traders (v. Fürer-Haimendorf, 1975). Some Thakalis were forced to look for alternative income sources and many of them migrated to big cities like Kathmandu and Pokhara.

The impact of the airport and tourism

In 1962 an airfield was built by the International Red Cross in a plain area near the Kali Gandaki River close to Jomosom to support the humanitarian aid for the large number of tibetan refugees who escaped from the Chinese invasion (Hagen, 1993). Ten years later it was enlarged by the Nepalese; today a new terminal is under construction. Only small airplanes can use the unpaved runway. In addition, the daily strong wind after 11 a.m. in the valley (Haffner 1997) blocks the air traffic.

With 6 to 12 flights per day, the airport does not contribute to the development of trade in a significant way because flying remains for the locals an extremely expensive form not only of travel but also transport. On the other hand, it allows a much easier access for tourism to this remote area, which led to a fast improvement of the service sector. In the 1970s and 1980s, tourists in Jomosom numbered between 6000 and 7000 per year. By the early 1990s, the number had increased to 14.000 per year. In 1998, the region received 20,000 tourists (Vinding, 1998). Many of the Thakalis, who had migrated to cities like Kathmandu and Pokhara, returned because of the influx of tourists to run restaurants and hotels, especially during the trekking high season. At the same time a large number of Nepalese arrived to look for a job.
Old Jomosom
Picture 1: Old Jomosom on the Kali Gandaki

Today, Jomosom airport is the stepping stone for destinations such as the sacred sites of Muktinath and the ancient kingdom of Mustang. It is also the destination of the "Jomosom Trek" and a station of the "Annapurna circuit trek". The region belongs to the Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP), which was established in 1986 under the guidance of King Mahendra Trust for Nature Conservation. The project includes the entire Annapurna range. ACAP tries to involve local people in the conservation of nature. Its programs include training lodge owners and encouraging hoteliers to charge a fair price for food and accommodation. It supports other measures such as the use of kerosene for cooking and the construction of toilets and save water stations throughout the area. ACAP relies on a "conservation fee" that is collected from all the trekkers in the Annapurna region.

The evolution of tourism left a very clear trace in the settlement structure of Jomosom. Many Thakalis from Jomosom and other close villages moved to Marpha, close to the airport (see map), and built hotels, restaurants and other tourist facilities. Of the 25 hotels/lodges of Jomosom (including one five star hotel, the Jomosom Mountain Resort, financed by the World Bank), 21 are situated in Marpha, and an additional two are under construction. This is a huge number of hotels for a town of 5363 inhabitants (Vinding, 1998).

The hindu and buddhist pilgrims on the way to Muktinath presently have little economic impact on the lodges and almost the whole business on this side of the town is focused on tourists and on the foreigners who came here looking for jobs: there are nine airline offices, five bakeries, a dance club, two tailors and two hair dressers, a butcher to deliver meat to the hotels, a money exchange office, some souvenir shops, 19 restaurants, a computer center, etc. The ACAP has installed its information office and check point as well as a save water shop, a rubbish collection center and some public toilets. Not to be overlooked is the Mustang Eco Museum, which was built as an attraction for tourists.

Because of the development the town has split into two parts: "Old" and "New" Jomosom - or what the Thakalis call "Jomosom Airport" (photo 1 and 2 and map). A walk through the town gives us the impression that there is not only a noticeable difference between Old and New Jomosom, but also a kind of transition area between them. It begins with the Royal Nepal Army base and ends at the old wooden bridge over the Kali Gandaki. This division is based on our survey of the area. Most of the hotel owners confirmed in the interviews that the wooden bridge is considered as the traditional starting point of Old Jomosom. The transition area includes some houses, the administrative offices, 3 schools, and the district hospital. We called this part of the town the "District administration area" because of the concentration of many offices in this area. There are also some suburb facilities like a cinema and a mill. The offices in this area will be described in the next chapter.
Jomosom airport
Picture 2: The airport is situated in new Jomosom

In spite of the four hotels situated in Old Jomosom, most of the facilities are for serving the locals rather than the tourists, like the bank, two schools, some general stores, youth clubs and political party offices. In general the source of income in Old Jomosom remains livestock, agriculture and horticulture, and seasonal migration for business to India (ACAP, 2000). In contrast. the economy of New Jomosom is fully based on tourism.

Headquarters of the Mustang District

In the early 1970s Jomosom became the administrative Headquarters of the Mustang District (ACAP, 2000). Therefore a new part of the town was constructed in the area between Old and New Jomosom on both sides of the Kali Gandaki river. Most of the district government offices were built on the left side of the river and connected to the right side through a new metal bridge. In addition, the district hospital and an army base and mountain warfare school were built on the right side along the way to New Jomosom (see map and photo 1).

Most government servants and soldiers came from other regions, so the ethnic structure of the village has changed.


The construction of the airfield ushered in a new age for Jomosom. It opened the upper Kali Gandaki Valley to "mass tourism". The service sector experienced a tremendous growth, which continues today. In our opinion there are already too many lodges and hotels in Jomosom, and the construction of new ones is not justifiable from any point of view. According to newly released statistics, the number of tourists arriving in Nepal this year registered a 12.79 percent shortfall comparing to 1999 (Tiwari, 2000). The Indian Airlines hijacking on December 24 last year and the following boycott of the Kathmandu airport by Indian Airlines for five months may have influenced the statistic, but there are other factors that contribute to be pessimism about an increase of tourism in Nepal, and by extension in the Jomosom area.

Even the Nepalese tourism entrepreneurs are raising serious concerns over the deterioting security environment in the country (Anonymous, 2000).

Also new destinations in south east Asia like Vietnam or Laos could influence the statistic in a negative way. At a local level hotel owners in Jomosom are doing little to improve the situation. The prices, compared to other villages in the valley, are extremely high, and this without offering a better service. Even in the Nepalese Trekking Guide 2000 we find these words: "Marpha is a much better choice than Jomsom for a night stop because the hotels are better and there is less wind." It should furthermore be noted that Jomosom is not a real tourist destination, but more or less a "one night stop over" before leaving or after arriving in the valley by airplane.

In conclusion, changes introduced by the establishment of administrative offices and the military camp have altered the ethnic structure of and given a new image and brought recognition to Jomosom. On top of this, further changes are being continually introduced to the village due to tourism.

Map: Jomosom - Settlement and Function Zones

Back to "Geographical Field Studies in Southern Mustang / Kali Gandaki Valley"

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