How Nessie and the Yeti birthed a global cryptid-chasing industry

How Nessie and the Yeti birthed a global cryptid-chasing industry

From the mists of Loch Ness to the wilds of Australia, fantastical beasts are spawning a lucrative–and controversial–form of tourism.

Published November 29, 2022

10 min read

They supposedly lurk in remote lakes, hide in dense forests, and roam snowy mountains. Yet despite being refuted by science, cryptids–fantastical beasts that probably don’t exist–have awed and terrified humans for centuries.

West Africa has the swamp-dwelling creature Ninki Nanka, Japan the monstrous Akkorokamui octopus, and Ireland the carnivorous Dobhar-chu dog-otter hybrid. But the mythical beings that seem to intrigue travelers the most remain Scotland‘s Loch Ness Monster, the Himalayan Yeti, Australia‘s Yowie, and North America‘s Bigfoot. The last, a Chewbacca-like man-ape, helps generate over $140 million annually for the U.S. economy, according to the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine.

These cryptids have inspired festivals, movies, podcasts, and a niche field of study called cryptozoology, the search for magical creatures. They are the focal point of boat cruises, wilderness excursions, and lend their names for bars, hotels, restaurants, or even an airline. Just before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, one Scottish company spent nearly $3 million on a new visitor center linked to the legendary serpent of Loch Ness.

Whether people believe in cryptids or not, cryptotourism offers travelers the opportunity to explore under-the-radar destinations from a unique perspective. Here’s how communities from Europe to Australia and Nepal are leaning into their mystical appeal to help their tourism industries recover from the pandemic.

A modern legend emerges

The world’s best-known cryptid is probably “Nessie,” the massive marine creature rumored to haunt the 800-foot-deep waters of Loch Ness. Since its first alleged sighting some 1,400 years ago, the Loch Ness Monster has stirred perpetual ripples of controversy.

Irish missionary St. Columba first wrote about the mythical beast in 565 A.D. Nessie allegedly injured a swimmer and was about to inflict harm on another when Columba intervened. The saint wrote about the mythical beast in A.D. The legend was further fueled by Nessie sightings that occurred over the centuries.

In 1934 this local legend went viral when an English doctor captured a photograph of what he claimed was Nessie, its long neck and bulbous head seemingly protruding from the lake. This image was the catalyst for a series of events that made Loch Ness a well-known lake in Europe.

Monster tours of Loch Ness began soon after, says Gary Campbell, who runs the official Loch Ness Monster sightings website, on which he’s logged 1,143 encounters in 26 years. By 2019 Nessie tourism was a $47 million industry.

The pandemic hasn’t diminished Nessie’s allure. In the first eight months of 2022, 149,000 visitors took lake tours with Loch Ness by Jacobite, according to Freda Newton, the company’s managing director.

“Everyone wants to believe in Nessie. She says that visitors see it every day. “There is palpable excitement when people board our boats that maybe, just maybe, they’ll get a glimpse of our most elusive friend.”

Gordon Menzies, who runs Castle Cruises Loch Ness, estimates more than 70 percent of his customers visit because of Nessie. This legend has fascinated Menzies for a lifetime. Menzies states that it is unlikely that a prehistoric creature exists in this area. “But given the dark peaty waters of the loch, I see no reason to consider it is impossible for something which we have not yet identified to exist.”

Lore vs. science

Though Nessie has become somewhat kitschy, Australia’s most prominent cryptid, the Yowie, is embedded deep in the lore of one of the world’s oldest communities, the Australian Aboriginals.

After the British colonized the country in the late 1700s, the Aboriginals delivered them an eerie warning. The verdant forests they stole camouflaged hairy, 10-foot-tall, 800-pound bipedal monsters. Tony Healy, coauthor and coauthor of several books about Australian cryptids, says that Yowies are to be respected, but they should also be avoided by Aboriginal people. “The [Aboriginal] elders I spoke to see Yowies as something like a guardian spirit of the landscape.”

The earliest rumored Yowie sighting was in the 1830s, when a European man fired his musket at one of these beasts on Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia. There have been hundreds of supposed encounters since, according to Australian cryptozoologist Gary Opit, who has researched the Yowie for 50 years. They were concentrated on the Great Divide, a 2,300-mile-long series of mountain ranges and plateaus that runs north from Victoria through New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland.

An environmental scientist, Opit leads Yowie tours into this wilderness. About 90 percent of participants are foreign tourists keen on exploring the isolated locations of reported Yowie sightings, like Mount Warning in northern NSW, and nearby Springbrook Mountain. Yowies have been discussed for thousands of centuries, but they became a tourist attraction in the last decade.

(To discover wild America, follow Bigfoot’s mythical steps. )

Some 5,000 miles away, in Kathmandu, Nepal, cryptotourism is better established, reaching back to the 1950s. It centers on the Yeti. Up to six feet tall and similar in appearance to the Yowie and Bigfoot, this legendary creature allegedly prowls the snowy peaks of the Himalayas and is a prominent figure in the folklore of Nepal, Bhutan, India, and Tibet.

Its tale is 6,000 years old, says Ram Kumar Panday, a Nepali geographer and author of multiple books about the Yeti. But the furry beast was a regional fairytale until British explorer Eric Shipton claimed to have photographed a 13-inch-long footprint, hominoid in appearance, in the snow of Nepal’s Menlung Glacier, west of Mount Everest, Panday says.

This image haunted newspapers and televisions worldwide. Explorers soon inundated the Himalayas, competing to detect the cryptid. The flood of foreign tourists prompted the Nepal government 2022 to establish strict regulations for Yeti hunting. They required that anyone who was involved in the hunt had to photograph and not hurt any animals they encountered.

Over the following decades, the Yeti became a powerful tourism brand in Nepal. This beast’s foot forms the logo of the domestic carrier, Yeti Airlines, while hotels, restaurants, cafes, and tour companies profit off its name. In early 2020, the Nepal government made the cryptid a centerpiece of its tourism campaign, placing dozens of Yeti statues at key attractions.

As an intrinsic part of Nepal’s lore, the Yeti is a worthwhile tourist draw, Panday says. Mahalangur Himal is a great place to explore for those who are interested in the beast. He says that the wild Himalayan region is home to many of the world’s highest peaks, including Mount Everest and Cho Oyu. It is also the location of most Yeti sightings.

(This man searched for the Yeti for 60 years–and found it. )

Visitors to this region can learn dozens of Yeti legends from its Sherpa communities. Panday explains that ancient scrolls found in Himalayan monasteries tell the story of how the Yeti was created to a Mahalangur giant Ape and a Tibetan mother.

Other Nepalis are more skeptical. Sushil Nepal, a veteran Kathmandu tour guide, says that even as a child he considered Yetis a sham. When asked by his customers about the monster, Sushil Nepal says it’s widely believed to be a myth. He says that he doesn’t like cryptotourism because it takes away from Nepal’s amazing architecture and ancient traditions.

“I don’t think the Yeti is a valuable tool to promote Nepal tourism,” he says. “We have a lot tangible and intangible cultural legacy. Nepal should focus on its rich natural diversity.”

Many researchers are similarly dubious about this cryptid. In 2017, DNA analysis of alleged Yeti teeth, hair, and fur, published by Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found this mythical beast may have been inspired by real animals–the Himalayan black and brown bears.

Academics have also offered scientific explanations for Australian cryptids and the Loch Ness Monster, yet these legends persist. Opit states that people have always been fascinated with nature’s mysteries, and things we don’t understand. “That’s not going to change any time soon.”

Ronan O’Connell is an Australian journalist and photographer who shuttles between Ireland, Thailand, and Western Australia.

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