The economy of the Himalayas as a whole is poor with low per capita income. Much of the Himalayas area is characterized by a very low economic growth rate combined with a high rate of population growth, which contributes to stagnation in the already low level of per capita gross national product. Most of the population is dependent on agriculture, primarily subsistence agriculture; modern industries are lacking.
Mineral resources are limited. The Himalayas has major hydroelectric potential, but the development of hydroelectric resources requires outside capital investment. The skilled labor needed to organize and manage development of natural resources is also limited due to low literacy rates. Most of the Himalayan communities face malnutrition, a shortage of safe drinking water, and poor health services and education systems.
Agricultural land is concentrated in the Tarai plain and in the valleys of the Middle Himalayas. Patches of agricultural land have also been carved out in the mountainous forested areas. Rice is the principal crop in eastern Tarai and the well-watered valleys. Corn is also an important rain-fed crop on the hillsides.
Other cereal crops are wheat, millet, barley, and buckwheat. Sugarcane, tea, oilseeds, and potatoes are other major crops. Food production in the Himalayas has not kept up with the population growth.
The major industries include processing food grains, making vegetable oil, refining sugar, and brewing beer. Fruit processing is also important. A wide variety of fruits are grown in each of the major zones of the Himalayas, and making fruit juices is a major industry in Nepal, Bhutan, and in the Indian Himalayas.
Since 1950 tourism has emerged as a major growth industry in the Himalayas. Nearly 1 million visitors come to the Himalayas each year for mountain trekking, wildlife viewing, and pilgrimages to major Hindu and Buddhist sacred places. The number of foreign visitors has increased in recent years, as organized treks to the icy summits of the Great Himalayas have become popular. While tourism is important to the local economy, it has had an adverse impact on regions where tourist numbers exceed the capacity of recreational areas.
Historically, all transport in the Himalayas has been by porters and pack animals. Porters and pack animals are still important, but the construction of major roads and the development of air routes have changed the traditional transportation pattern. Major urban centers such as Kathmandu, Simla, and Srinagar, as well as important tourist destinations, are served by airlines. Railways link Simla and Darjiling, but in most of the Himalayas there are no railroads. The bulk of goods from the Himalayas, as well as goods destined for places within the Himalayas, generally come to Indian railheads, located in the Tarai, by road. The pack animals and porters transport goods from road heads to the interior and back.