It is mid-afternoon here at Lakeside in Pokhara, but there is no hustle-bustle in the tourist strip that would have been crowded with visitors during this holiday season.
Tourist arrivals have dropped by more than 60 per cent compared to the previous year, and passenger arrivals at Pokhara airport also show a 32 per cent decrease. Although it wasn’t affected by the earthquake, the town saw a huge drop in arrivals and it was just beginning to recover when the blockade hit three months ago.
“Those who weren’t scared by the earthquake have been put off by the current crisis,” says Kiran Tuladhar of Atithi Resort.
The sharpest increase in tourist arrivals has been in visitors from China, but they have seen a drop as well.
Wenyu Gong who runs the Go to Nepal Travel Agency says even the clients who have come, mainly from South China, are not satisfied with the facilities and service.
To mark the winter solstice this week Gong wanted to prepare an elaborate meal for her clients, but was forced to cut down on the celebrations due to a scarcity of supplies. Most of her clients also express their disappointment with the quality of infrastructure, garbage and pollution.
Despite this, tourism entrepreneurs are hopeful about Pokhara’s future and say they will ride out the crisis. Biplob Paudel of the Hotel Association of Nepal believes the key to Pokhara’s future development is the new regional international airport. Pokhara’s tourism industry has been lobbying hard for the construction of the new airport, languishing for 30 years, to be revived.
But work still hasn’t started on the $215 million project that has been contracted to a Chinese company.
“Once China and Nepal sign the final loan agreement, this project will be completed within four years,” says Project Director Pradeep Adhikari.
Adhiraki sees a prosperous future not only for Pokhara but Nepal in general, and adds: "Direct air connectivity to Pokhara will definitely foster tourism with increased tourist arrivals to Nepal.”
With the opening of the airport, more than 70 per cent of tourists who visit Nepal is expected to come to Pokhara. Mandarin-speaking tour guide Jiwan Giri shares the same expectations saying Pokhara has all the things Chinese tourists love: snow mountain, hills, lake, a pleasant climate, jungle, waterfall and river with dozens of outdoor adventures and recreational activities.
“People who love Pokhara will come despite all odds,” says Giri whose company is one of few still receiving visitors from mainland China.
Despite the doom and gloom, Pokhara businessmen are optimistic. Proof of that is Biplob Paudel who owns Hotel Barahi and is planning to build another high-end hotel in Pokhara. He says: “I believe in the future of Pokhara.”
The wreckage of 2015, Siran Liang
Where have all the tourists gone?, Tsering Dolker Gurung
The Chinese are coming, Claire Li Yingxue
Finally, a new airport?, Ramesh Poudel
Tourism is down, but not out, Om Astha Rai
Up in the air
Twenty four-year-old Shiyu Liu fell in love with Pokhara after watching the Chinese film Up in the Wind that was largely shot in this lake town. Just as the lead actress in the movie, Liu dreams of soaring above Phewa Lake shoulder-to-shoulder with the Annapurnas.
However, the Chinese student who was planning to visit Nepal this winter has decided to put her trip on hold deterred by the earthquake and blockade.
Paragliding companies operated more than 100 flights daily before the earthquake, the number is down to 20. More than 30 companies offer paragliding in Pokhara, and competition to attract the fewer number of customers has resulted in undercutting. While the price for a person per tandem flight used to be fixed at Rs 8,500, some companies go down to as much as Rs 5,500, inviting disapproval from colleagues in the profession.
“You pay less, you play with life,” warns one paragliding pilot, “we haven’t lowered our price because we provide the best service, have professional pilots, and reliable equipment.”
To keep their businesses afloat, some have implemented pay cuts for staff. Paragliding companies have been forced to reduce staff salaries by 20 per cent, but say they will not let the downturn in business affect safety.
“The fuel crisis has definitely made the situation worse,” admits Sabina Bastola of FlyNepal Paragliding as an unscheduled power cut shut down her computer while she was preparing video CDs for customers who had just completed their jump. She had to make them wait another 15 minutes after turning the generator on.
Despite the gloom and glitches, for Chinese tourist Winnie Wu (pic, above)who is visiting with her family, the trip has been worth it. She says: “When I saw Machapucchre up close and the deep blue sky, my trip to Nepal was worth all the trouble.”
Hanging in the balance, Paavan Mathema
Soaring over Nepal, Ramesh Poudyal
Pokhara sky race, Adam Hill
Keep ‘em coming
Chinese businessman Jiangsong Zhan (pic) came to Pokhara 14 years ago, and never left. He runs a restaurant in the Lakeside area, and is also the president of Pokhara Overseas Chinese Association that was set up this year by fellow-Chinese entrepreneurs.
Along with tourists Pokhara has seen an increasing number of Chinese investors. Private investment from Chinese businesses has crossed over Rs 240 million, and most are in the hospitality business.
“To open a travel agency you require Rs 1.6 million, a restaurant would need Rs 6.4 million, a hotel could range from Rs 9.6 million to Rs 16 million,” explains Zhan breaking down the capital requirement to start a new business in the city.
Like most Pokhara businesses, Zhan’s restaurant has suffered huge losses this year. Business is down by 90 per cent, but he is already planning a new venture with few other interested investors.
“We plan to develop some new business to stimulate the market,” he says, “but our efforts will be futile if customers don’t come at all.” Like him, Zhan’s friends in China are still interested in investing in Pokhara even after a disastrous year.
Many here say negative media coverage is to be blamed for keeping away investors. “When investors see a place in crisis, it’s unlikely that they would take the risk to invest,” says Wenyu Gong of Go to Nepal Travel Agency, “Businessmen go after high return on capitals.”
Last September, the Nepal Association of Tour and Travel Agents invited several overseas media including Hong Kong-based One TV Media Global, to visit Nepal and write stories about the country. The TV station has already broadcasted its special on Nepal, the impact of which is yet to be seen.