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Bringing Nepal's ghost town back to life

By Gena Somra, CNN
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Bandipur, Nepal: Eco-friendly oasis
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nepali town of Bandipur banned vehicles to help revive its fortunes
  • Villagers were leaving for jobs in big cities until ban
  • Now tourism is a big industry in the town

Bandipur, Nepal (CNN) -- "No vehicles allowed", reads the hand-painted sign welcoming visitors to the Nepalese village of Bandipur.

Those who come to the tiny village that offers panoramic views of the Himalayas must enter on foot along the cobblestone street, leaving the dirt, dust and commotion of a well-traveled road behind them.

Walking through Bandipur's main bazaar, Namaste Shrestha stops and smiles. The market is bustling, tradesmen are working and, most importantly, tourists are arriving.

Shrestha, born and raised in Bandipur, says he remembers the days when not only were tourists not arriving but residents were leaving.

Construction of a major highway from Kathmandu to Pokhra and the hope of better job opportunities lured them away.

"Bandipur became a ghost town. It was going down, and it was very sad for us." says Shrestha.

We knew we had to do something creative to rescue our village.
--Namaste Shrestha
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He and other members of the Bandipur Development Committee knew they needed to act quickly to save their town from ruin.

"We knew we had to do something, something creative to rescue our village," he says.

The group set their sights on reviving tourism, but the village was so dirty, dusty and noisy from traffic that few visitors wanted to visit Bandipur.

"So we made the decision to stop any vehicles from entering here and hoped it would make a difference," says Shrestha.

At first the town's remaining residents balked, fearful that the committee's decision would wipe out what little trade they still had and further hurt their already failing economy.

Shrestha says it took some time but they managed to convince residents to give them a chance to try their experiment.

"We said, 'Ok, let's try it for a few years and then if your business increases and more tourists come, then you will see.'"

Three years later no one wants the vehicles to return, says Shrestha.

"They are totally convinced, and they are happy. They say we have done a good thing."

Shrestha says the focus now is on restoring the town to its original splendor through a restoration program.

Helping in that effort is Bharat Basnet, a successful businessman and hotelier.

Basnet runs Gaun Ghar, a popular, eco-friendly hotel, and one of the first buildings in Bandipur to be restored. He helped return the once dilapidated run-down building back to its traditional Newari style, setting an example for others to follow and take pride in Bandipur's cultural heritage.

Basnet says he aims to provide his guests with as natural an experience as possible. All the food he serves is locally grown, most of it organic. He uses no plastic of any kind, keeps energy and water usage to a minimum and only uses local handcrafted materials in his hotel.

His passionate commitment to the environment, he says, is born out of necessity.

"I lived my childhood in the mountains with fresh air, fresh water, and never thought of anything else. Then I came to Kathmandu, where slowly the city got bigger and bigger with more brick factories, and it got more polluted," he says.

"I was raising my children, and I thought one thing I can surely offer is quality of life, which nature has offered all of us."

Basnet says more children should grow up in a clean and healthy environment and hopes the changes Bandipur has made to revive their quality of life can become an example not only for Nepal but for the rest of the world.

"I think it will take time," he says. "Everything comes in time. Slowly we are trying to reduce, to return to what we knew, and it will happen."