The term trekking, used in the Anglo-Saxon world to describe what in French is called randonnée (hiking), is the practice of going on a sightseeing journey on foot to discover large natural environments (mountain, desert, forest), located in areas characterised by their wilderness character, their difficult access and their remoteness from the major tourist concentrations. Though not extreme, it requires more physical stamina and engagement than an outing or a simple stroll due to its duration and intensity. Trekking was structured as a tourist practice in the years 1970 to 1980, first in the Himalayas of Nepal, then in other parts of the world, with a similar organisation. It has given birth to many tour operators specialising in this so-called adventure tourism and plays an essential role in the touristification of great natural spaces in the world. Although marginal on the scale of international tourism, trekking is a powerful factor in spatial distribution of tourism. It is often the initial phase and the pioneering front of tourism ecumene progress. It is practised more particularly in protected areas and marginalised areas of developing countries (Himalayas, Andean Cordillera, Sahara, Sub-Saharan Africa, Amazon, Mountains of Southeast Asia, Moroccan Atlas, Taurus, etc.).
Etymologically, the word trekking is an Anglicism that is itself derived from the Dutch word “trek” meaning “migration”. It historically designated the Grand Trek, the migration that took place from 1834 to 1852 between Cape Town and the Transvaal and Natal provinces by Afrikaner pioneers as the British advanced, before designating a hike in the mountains. In France, the word was first included in Le Petit Robert (French dictionary) in 1975. It entered the current language in the 1980s, with the marketing of this practice by specialised tour-operators, hence the gallicised term “trekkeur” to mean a trekking practitioner and the term “trek” to mean the hiking circuit.
A practice related to ecotourism, pushing the margins of tourism ecumene
Trekking is in keeping with the current heightened sensitivity to nature and the emergence of a range of highly distinctive practices, grouped under the term alternative tourism or ecotourism. Their common point is the rejection of mass tourism, the search for a certain otherness and high exclusivity (Lapompe-Paironne, 2008). Originally practised by lovers of great mountain hiking, it was quickly adopted by tourists wishing to discover, through walking, preserved natural spaces, more or less accessible, not touristy or not very touristy and inhabited by ethnic minorities who have maintained their traditional ways of life.
In its commercial version, it has been sold since the 1980s by specialised tour operators, mainly European, North American, Japanese and Australian, in the form of small group trips, “off the beaten track”, subcontracted for the logistics part to local trekking agencies, of which Nepal has served as a model (Sacareau, 1997). The weakness of tourist infrastructure means that tourists camp onsite, or stay with local hosts or in modest lodges or guest houses set up by them. Tourists’ backpacks and food are transported on the backs of human porters or in vehicles or animal caravans (mules and yaks in the Himalayas, dromedaries in the Sahara, mules in the Moroccan Atlas, lamas in the Andes). The discomfort and vagaries of travel are presented as the price to pay to guarantee its exclusivity, while the unexpected is promoted as one of the key aspects of the adventure, even if the logistics put in place reduces it to the maximum (Tinard, 1992).
The small size of the guided groups also gives the illusion of a lower impact on the destinations visited and of a more authentic interaction with the local populations. However, the regular arrival of tourists, even in small numbers, is not without effects on the environment (possible disturbance of wildlife, waste that needs to be managed, erosion of trails, contribution to deforestation, etc.) as on the local economy and the society.
In very sparsely populated and remote landlocked areas, the presence of tourists even in small numbers necessarily produces changes in the host societies and the environment, when it comes to welcoming tourists whose needs are added to those of the inhabitants or cannot be met locally. This mostly results in the import of food products, without great benefits for the inhabitants, and in a weak integration of tourism activity into the local economy, at least at the beginning of the touristification.
However, as most trekking circuits take place within protected areas, tourist groups, like the populations that host them, are subject to more or less restrictive management methods, which aim precisely to limit the negative impacts of tourism on the environment (restrictions on the use of local resources such as firewood, use of alternative energy sources, waste collection systems, restriction of the number of tourists on certain routes, building regulations).
In addition, in some countries, such as Nepal or Bhutan, the government imposes a paid permit for trekking, which is in addition to the entrance fees to protected areas, the latter intended to finance environmental protection and local development. These trekking permits are both a source of revenue for the country and a means of controlling tourist flows while ensuring that tourists can access poorly integrated peripheral spaces (Michaud, 1998).
Local tourism systems driven by global actors
Over the recent past, in addition to the original actors who bring together tourists discovering spaces still largely unexplored and local societies willing to welcome them, with or without the intermediation of specialised foreign tour-operators, governments and international institutions (World Bank, UNDP, UNESCO), as well as many international NGOs (WWF, IUCN) or local NGOs, are now also involved. They see trekking as a form of ecotourism that respects the environment and local societies, is able to promote the development of landlocked or struggling areas, and fight against poverty. However, the impact of this tourism locally varies depending on the nature of the areas concerned, how long the tourist activity has been practised, the ways in which it is practised (independently or in organised groups, stay with a local host, in lodge or in tent, duration of the treks), and especially on the system used by the actors that produced it and the degree of control that the inhabitants have over their territory and the local tourist system.
While the economic benefits of trekking may seem relatively modest or unevenly shared, they nevertheless play a significant role at the local level for the populations who invest in this activity through the employment of tourist guides, porters or through the opening of rooms in the home of a local host and the construction of small accommodations, which do not require heavy investments.
As tourist arrivals grow, accommodations expand and diversify, and they improve in comfort level. Restaurants flourish along the trails, souvenir shops or tourist services are located at the departure and arrival points of the treks and at stopover places, profoundly reshaping the host society and its economy. The most accessible stopover places, eventually become autonomous by offering shorter trips or stays for discovering rural life in homestay, accommodation with a local host, a new feature on certain routes (Derioz and Lond, 2020).
In some countries where trekking is recent and the system dominated by the state or tour operators outside the region, such as in China, Vietnam, Thailand or Laos, the local population only plays a minor role and derives minimal benefits from the short passage of tourist groups. On the other hand, in older destinations, such as Nepal or Morocco, local actors play a significant role in a tourism system that is only partially controlled by external actors (foreign tour operators, local receiving agencies). This is the case of the Sherpa of the Everest region in Nepal who have managed to make a real social rise thanks to tourism, allowing them to open their own trekking agencies in the capital and provide work to their families who have stayed in the country. In doing so, they have established themselves as the main actors in the construction and control of the tourism system at the local as well as at the national or even international level (Sacareau, 1997, Jacquemet 2018).
Sometimes presented as a virtuous model of ecotourism as opposed to mass tourism, sometimes as an activity that harms the environment and disrupts local societies, taking tourists as a uniform whole, trekking is also the subject of contradictory criticisms. However, there can be no tourism development without territorial transformation. By contributing to the social rise of at least part of the local society and to a certain enrichment of the territories concerned, trekking allows some previously marginalised regions to join in the globalisation process (Goery, 2011).
- Dérioz Pierre et Letang Mauve, 2020, «Le Mardi Himal Trek (versant sud des Annapurnas, Népal) et les évolutions récentes des pratiques de trekking», Via Tourism review. n°17, mis en ligne le 20 octobre 2020, consulté le 4 octobre 2021, en ligne.
- Jacquemet Etienne, 2018, La société sherpa à l’ère du yackdonald, lutte des places pour l’accès aux ressources dans la région touristique de l’Everest. thèse de l’Université Bordeaux Montaigne, 432 p.
- Goeury David, 2011, Les espaces du mérite: enclavement, tourisme et mondialisation, le cas de Zaiouïat Ahansal (Haut-Atlas central, Maroc) et du Zanskar (Himalaya, Inde). Thèse de Géographie de l’Université Paris IV, 728 p.
- Lapompe-Paironne Lionel, 2008, Tourisme de masse et tourisme alternatif. Une approche par les pratiques. Thèse de Géographie, décembre, 361 p.
- Michaud Jean, 1998, «Tourisme et contrôle étatique dans les périphéries nationales: étude de cas chez les minorités montagnardes d’Inde et de Thaïlande», dans Franck Michel (dir.), Tourisme, touristes, sociétés. Paris, L’Harmattan, coll. «Tourismes et Sociétés», p. 289-313.
- Sacareau Isabelle, 2014, «Marcher dans l’Himalaya, imaginaires et pratiques», dans Guichard-Anguis Sylvie, Frérot Anne-Marie et Da Lage Antoine (ed.), Natures, miroirs des hommes?, Paris, L’Harmattan, coll. «Géographie et Cultures», p. 165-178.
- Sacareau Isabelle, 1997, Porteurs de l’Himalaya, le trekking au Népal. Paris, Belin, coll. «Mappemonde», 271 p.
- Tinard Yves, 1992, «Le tourisme d’aventure, un concept évolutif», Cahiers Espace. n°29, p. 8-19.