Nepal’s tourism industry has taken some hard knocks lately. There was the human tragedy of the earthquake, and just as the country was beginning to recover, the blockade devastated the economy. Images and posts on social media of Kathmandu’s squalour and pollution have deterred visitors.
News of air crashes, the chaos at Kathmandu airport, and shoddy domestic transport infrastructure haven’t helped.
2 million in 2020, Shreejana Shrestha
A solid tourism brand, Jiwan Bahadur Shahi
However, Nepal’s stupendous scenery, vibrant culture and easy-going people make it a brand strong enough to withstand setbacks. It didn’t even take a year for tourism arrivals to spring back to pre-earthquake totals. The Nepal Tourism Board is projecting arrival figures to surpass 800,000 this year, and break the 2012 record.
Increased hotel capacity, the addition of two international airports, Nepal Airlines spreading its wings with four new Airbuses are reasons behind the government’s optimism, and setting the target to boost annual arrivals to 2 million by 2020.
This is not unrealistic. The country’s location between the world’s two fastest growing and biggest economies puts Nepal at a huge advantage. Tapping just 1 per cent of the 120 million Chinese tourists who travel overseas every year will represent a ten-fold increase in the current annual total of Chinese guests in Nepal. Just concentrating on pilgrims from India can be an enormous boost to tourism. Once Lumbini Airport is operational, Buddhist pilgrim traffic will see a sharp increase. Pokhara Airport can accommodate direct international flights from India and China. Those two airports will hopefully reduce the current congestion at Kathmandu.
Tourism now provides direct employment to 700,000 Nepalis, and brought in Rs 90 billion in foreign currency in 2016, making up nearly 5 per cent of the GDP. However, attaining the 2 million visitor target by 2020 will only be meaningful if tourists spend more here, which means government policy should not be to squeeze tourists with more fees and visa hassles, but encourage the private sector to expand products and services.
Foreign investors, including international hotel chains and airlines have noticed Nepal's potential, which is why they are pouring money into joint ventures here. The ultimate test for the tourism industry will be if more of its income is routed to parts of the country where it can lift living standards. Part of the revenue the government earns from tourism should be recycled into conservation of our natural and cultural heritage.
The rebound of inbound tourismwill only make sense if its benefits are decentralised.
Tourism is down, but not out, Om Astha Rai