Posted: 12 November 2018

Shiva Dhakal has been involved in the tourism industry since 1992. In 2005, he established Royal Mountain Travel (RMT) Nepal, which now stands among the top travel companies in Nepal, offering a wide range of treks, tours, and expeditions in Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. Firmly committed to sustainable and responsible tourism, RMT has focused on ways to help empower women and develop local communities in Nepal.

When did you first get involved in the trekking and tourism industry and what brought about that initial interest?

It was not really planned, especially since I didn’t know much about tourism. When I was 17, after finishing SLC, I joined my neighbor’s company and worked in their office. There wasn’t much work there and they needed someone for their hotel. It was a small family hotel with 7 rooms and I was the only staff there. After working for 2 months, I joined a trekking company. At that time, tourism wasn’t like it is today. It was a very niche market. But I got an opportunity to go trekking and saw many things in different places.

Why did you want to establish Royal Mountain Travel, a company focused on sustainable and responsible tourism?

For me, a company isn’t just a money-making venture. The main thing was to make the company a model. What we can prove now is how much just one travel company can do. Internally, we do many trainings and develop skills for our whole staff—from sales to finance to operations. Only with their personal development can they really give to the company. With this, the company can also benefit others and uplift communities. This isn’t necessarily a travel company’s job but it is a responsible thing to do. In my life, I’ve gotten a lot from tourism and local communities. Now, I also want to give back to tourism and, as a company, we believe that tourism has to give back to these communities. That is how our Community Homestay Project came about.

What has the Community Homestay Project’s journey been like in working to develop communities?

With the community homestays, we were searching for something authentic. I had gone to Panauti with one office staff to visit his home. While exploring the old bazaar, I thought of how nice the place was and how close it was to Kathmandu. So why didn’t tourists come and stay there? Why had nobody promoted tourism? Then came the idea. We couldn’t make a hotel but we could start a homestay. From 1 room and 1 house, it became 2 houses, then 3, and then it expanded to 17 homes. It happened in a similar way in other parts of the country too.

In terms of the community homestays, we not only promote communities but also focus on development like building bathrooms and allocating a certain percentage of overall income towards local teachers’ salaries. Now, we’re also working on the marketing part. On one side, it has become a trend that travellers look for authentic experiences where they can, for example, stay and eat with a local. On the other side, communities want to host travellers. We’re trying to bridge that gap with this platform. That is our long-term plan.

You have spoken before about the importance of women’s involvement in this sector. Can you expand on this a bit?

I believe that until women come forward, the service sector won’t do well. This industry is about caring for other people, not necessarily about a product. At the office here, we have more than 50% women staff. Without women in the office and in the field as guides, we can’t really scale or move forward. We need people who care for others.

Can you walk us through your leadership journey and what leadership skills you have developed over the years?

Only in the past 5 to 7 years, I’ve started hearing more about leadership. Before that, I just grabbed every opportunity that came to me. For example, when I went trekking or was just working at the office, I usually got dinner with many of my guests. I talked with them and learned from them—what skills to build; how to run a company; how to build teams. I asked them questions and got feedback.

In 2005, I went to a tour guide leader training on leadership in Delhi. Then, knowingly or unknowingly, I acknowledged the importance of strong leaders within the organization. That would make it easier to scale the organization. So I sent 4 guides to a leadership training in Shanghai. Through such trainings for them and myself, I really learned more about leadership: where the company’s strength is; what a team means; what the value of field staff is. After that, I understood that, actually, the company’s main pillar isn’t me. The pillar is the team, the staff. If they, especially the guides, do well with our guests, then it’s good for the company too.

In my opinion, leadership is not only about leading but also about making others lead. It’s about inspiring and training others and building a team.

Based on your experiences, what is one characteristic you believe every leader or leadership team in this field should possess?

The focus of leadership should be on giving rather than receiving or taking. There should be no compromise on that, especially in the service sector. There should be full support for staff because they are the ones who help scale. Training and motivating them, providing them with benefits, allowing them to make decisions, thinking about how to give the whole team more so that they can also give back and the company itself benefits. That is what RMT’s strength is right now. We have a good team with more than 200 people involved. If we as a team don’t work well together, then all of this won’t be possible.

What do you do to personally continue growing and developing as a leader?

I read a lot of articles about leadership. Any small things I learn, I try to implement them here. I’m lucky in that way because for whatever knowledge I gain, I have a very good platform to try different things. I also talk about and share these learnings and articles with the team. When I share, I learn better because I am repeating and recalling the message.

What would be your advice to young leaders in the tourism industry or young people interested in entering this field?

What I tell young people is that you have to understand the country’s real sellable products. You can’t only get this from studying. You need that internal understanding. With the team also, they are free to go travelling and trekking 2-3 times a year. I’m happy to send them because without knowledge of the product, how can they sell?

Another thing is that, for some tourism students, it is their dream to work in big companies. That’s fine, no problem. But when you do that, you usually stick to one department and then you can end up spending your entire career in that same role. Instead, if you try to work in a small company first, then you have the opportunity to learn how companies actually work through every department. You need that experience and from there can grow, be department managers, general managers, start your own companies, and so on. Without basic knowledge, all of this is difficult. Every small experience counts.

NLA’s Concluding Reflections

“The company’s main pillar isn’t me. The pillar is the team, the staff…leadership is not only about leading but also about making others lead.” This section of the interview exemplified Mr. Dhakal’s understanding of and approach to leadership, which very much aligns with NLA’s own definition of leadership as enabling others to achieve shared purpose in times of uncertainty. Over the course of his leadership journey so far, Mr. Dhakal has listened to his own calling, empathized with both tourists and local communities, analyzed adaptive issues inherent in the tourism industry, and worked collaboratively with his team—all towards RMT’s longer-term goal of promoting sustainable and responsible tourism in Nepal, as well as empowering women and developing local communities.