If China has its druthers, however, that will change over the next few years, thanks in part to an ambitious and multimillion-dollar plan to transform the northern side of the hulking peak (which is called Mount Qomolangma in Tibet) into a world-renowned travel destination.
The “touristification” process already is underway: Earlier this year, China opened a new paved road that winds to an altitude around 14,000 feet and stops at the base camp parking lot. According to a recent article in the English-language China Daily, looking forward the country will bankroll a brand-new museum and mountaineering center in Gangkar township—a facility that also will be home to medical services, travel agencies, and a helicopter rescue base.
The Gangkar center is expected to cost nearly U.S.$15 million. Construction is expected to begin toward the end of 2017, and it is slated to open by the end of 2019.
There are a handful of reasons behind this push. For starters, the Chinese government has said it hopes developing the Tibetan side of Everest will help stabilize an unpredictable local (Tibetan) economy. Further down the road, at least according to a story from the Daily Mail, the Chinese hope the new facilities will help popularize winter sports in advance of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing and help make Tibet an international destination for alpine skiing.
Perhaps most important, many experts say the Tibet side of Everest simply is safer. On the Nepali side, the Khumbu Icefall has claimed more than a dozen lives in the past few years. On the Tibetan side, there are no natural threats—except weather.
Adam Minter, a journalist with Bloomberg, has pontificated on the state of the Chinese project, and noted in a recent piece: “Instead of fencing off Everest as a pristine wilderness, much as the U.S. has done with its national parks, China is approaching the Himalayas as the Europeans have the Alps,” he said. “These days, what’s lost in naturalism is gained in accessibility.”
To be fair, not everyone thinks developing the northern side of Everest is a good idea. Hard-core trekking enthusiasts, for instance, have said they prefer the natural challenges of the southern route. The Nepalese government also has made statements that suggest it prefers the existing monopoly.
Nevertheless, change is in the works. There’s no question all of the planned development will be a boon for travelers. One can only hope that eventually, it benefits locals—and Qomolangma—too.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.