Dobato, Taking the Road Less Travelled

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Sunayana Basnet
Damber Bista

In Nepali, the word dobato means a point where two roads diverge. The village of Dobato in Ilam District, eastern Nepal, lies at a dobato, a junction at which human habitation intersects with forest. Situated at the Nepal-India border approximately 50 km north from the busy town of Ilam, Dobato is a settlement in the midst of lush forest (2,660 masl, 27.0693010N 87.9952330E). It is a small community with eleven Rai and Sherpa households in Sandakpur Rural Municipality.

Dobato has become a tourism destination in recent years. Its major attraction is the charismatic red panda (Ailurus fulgens), an endangered mammal found in the Eastern Himalaya from China to Nepal. The region also harbours many other rare and threatened wildlife species like the Chinese pangolin, Himalayan black bear, clouded leopard, leopard cat, barking deer, wild dog (dhole), and wild boar. The diversity of rhododendron species in this area also attracts tourists. 

The global red panda population has declined by 50% over the last 20 years and there may be as few as 2,500 remaining in the wild. According to the National Red Panda survey 2016, the potential habitat of red panda in Illam district is 106 km2. People from far and wide come to Dobato just to get a glimpse of this beautiful and rare animal in its wild habitat.

This village also attracts an equal number of tourists interested in bird watching. Nearly 200 species of birds could be spotted during our week-long stay in the forests around this village. Furthermore, Sandakpur (3,636 masl) is another major attraction. Its mountain panorama and spectacular sunrise and sunset views attract many tourists. The village accommodates nearly 150 tourists each year, most of whom are international. The tourists are all accommodated in homestays. Over the years, the local community has gained knowledge about the importance of conservation and the protection of red panda and its habitat.

Red Panda in its natural habitat. Photo: Jitendra Bajracharya/ICIMOD

Tourism in Dobato has brought about socio-economic benefits to the local community. We could see this in the homestay operated by Sangay Sherpa, who has been hosting visitors since 2006 with the help of his wife and daughter in-law. He started his homestay from a small hut with two beds. Now he has built a cottage which can accommodate up to 20 guests at a time. His family was the only one serving all the visitors in Dobato until 2013. Later, with the support from the Red Panda Network (RPN), four other families also started providing homestay services. 

Dobato’s homestay programme has adopted a sustainable approach to tourism development. They prohibit red panda tracking during the red panda’s mating (January–February) and birthing seasons (June–September). They have placed rubbish bins around the village and hiking routes to encourage proper disposal of garbage. Similarly, they have attempted to raise awareness and educate younger generations. A book on biodiversity conservation has been endorsed in the curriculum of some schools in the area. The food served in homestays at Dobato is organic and prepared on improved cook stoves provided by the RPN and International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). Similarly, the electricity is generated from solar panels. In collaboration with ICIMOD, RPN has promoted similar red panda focused eco-tourism in two other villages, namely Choyatar and Thumke in Ilam district. One can spot red panda within three to four tracking days in all these sites. 

ICIMOD’s Regional REDD+ Initiative and the RPN have been collaborating to explore synergies between REDD+, Biodiversity Conservation, and Sustainable Livelihoods in eastern Nepal. The purpose is to illustrate how REDD+ can contribute to the conservation of red panda habitat while promoting ecotourism. This intervention not only targets eco-tourism promotion but also helps local communities adopt sustainable livelihood through the diversification of livelihood options and red panda habitat management by encouraging afforestation on fragmented habitat and helping restore degraded water sources.

Sangay Sherpa’s home stay. Photo: Sunayana Basnet/ICIMOD

As the tourism sector gets more competitive, homestay owners are expanding their facilities and improving the quality of services. Sangay Sherpa has added amenities like attached bathrooms to meet the demand of tourists. He also plans to make other changes in the rooms per the preference of his guests. 

Due to increasing competition, homestay owners, at one point, had stopped the rotation system which has historically been implemented. This issue was resolved after RPN intervened and homestay owners have again started following the rotation system. But for how long? As the project objective is to enable the community to make sustainable choices on their own without intervention from outside forces, locals should be able to plan for the future on their own. For now, the people of Dobato understand the importance of conservation and collective action, but with time they might be tempted to change their ways to attract more tourists. 

The challenge of responsible tourism lies with both the destination as well with visitors. The services that tourists demand creates a burden on the destination and host communities in terms of supply. Many of these demands can have serious adverse impacts on the environment. As travellers we must be responsible and careful that our demands are not causing harm to the economic and ecological sustainability of the destination.

Since the Government of Nepal is promoting ‘Visit Nepal Year 2020’ and has set a target to bring in two million tourists, it is very important to promote secondary destinations like Dobato for dispersion of tourists and spreading tourism revenue. This can lead to sustainable development of regional hubs by generating socioeconomic benefits such as diversified incomes, investments, and employment in the tourism sector. Tourism should not be just about the mountains but also about little villages in between. Dobato is one of many villages where tourists can have an immersive local experience. 

Someone rightly said, “Raise your awareness and share your uniqueness to the world”. Destinations must realize the unique features they possess in order to tap into the growing tourism market. In the case of Dobato, people are well aware about the unique nature of their village but visitors must be willing to accept them as they are. Therefore, Dobato must be encouraged to take the road less travelled. That will make all the difference.

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -- I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” – Robert Frost

Sunayana Basnet is a research assistant in the Livelihoods Theme at ICIMOD. She can be reached at

Damber Bista is Conservation Manager at the Red Panda Network. He can be reached at


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