5-11 June 2015 #761

Waiting and watching

Guests may be gods, but they are not very visible lately in the tourist hub of Thamel
Karma Gurung

COMING BACK: American tourist Matt (right) says he is leaving Nepal, but is sure to be back.

Six weeks after the 25 April Earthquake, a once-vibrant, cosmopolitan tourist district of Thamel today has empty streets, half-heartedly open shops and traders sitting around with their heads in their hands. Guests may be gods, but they have not been very visible lately.

They all perk up if a person who looks like a tourist walks by, and surprisingly, there are still some left. But more often than not the European or Southeast Asian looking foreigners are relief workers wearing uniform t-shirts of their organisations. In the evenings, some bars are open and they are filled with Kathmandu’s youth too bored with staying at home.

“I came for a trek, and was in the mountains when the earthquake hit,” said American relief worker, Matt as he prepared to leave for the airport in a cab. “I went to Chitwan after I got back and decided to make the best of my stay here. I will definitely be back.”

What Thamel lacks in tourists these days, it has made up for with relief workers and Kathmandu-based expats. Cafes like Himalayan Java have benefited from relief groups having their meetings there to coordinate with their Nepali counterparts. Free wifi is an attraction for many. Fire and Ice Pizzeria is back, and tables have to be booked in advance in the evenings.

“Our daily sales have gone down by half, so we have reduced our opening hours,” said Harish B Chandra of Himalayan Java, “but I wouldn’t say there aren’t any tourists. I am sure they will come back as the aftershocks decrease.”

Amidst these few relief workers scattered around cafes in Thamel, Kathmandu’s young are also filling the missing gap of tourists in trendy cafes and bars. As the day comes to an end, dim lights and the usual low music fill the atmosphere drawing crowds of Nepalis, catching up or getting over post-earthquake blues with a drink.

Manager of Shandong Hotel, Elaine Wu, post pictures of Kathmandu online to show Chinese people that the city is safe to visit.

While the current tourist season is almost over, the Thamel Tourism Development Council is now preparing itself for the next season in September. “Of the expected number of tourists, only 25 per cent are currently here but now we need to work hard to promote Thamel ahead of the upcoming September season.” said Council president, Ram Sharan Thapaliya.

The Council plans to create documentaries about Thamel, and organise conferences in foreign countries where Nepal has embassies to dispel the notion that Thamel and Kathmandu have been destroyed.

Thamel has also hit upon an innovative strategy to bring Nepali visitors from the plains, where it is now 45 degrees in the daytime. This gives new meaning to the term ‘domestic tourism’. Similar to Pokhara’s reaction to the decline in tourism, he hinted of a plan to create special packages and discounts in hotels and enterprises, which will be implemented in the Thamel area.

Down the road in Thamel’s Chinatown, Elaine Wu of Shandong Hotel is also optimistic about revival of tourism. Although the hotel did not suffer any damage, it did get cancellations. Before the earthquake all 30 rooms in Shandong used to be occupied daily, mainly by guests from China. Today, there is only 10 per cent occupancy, and the guests are relief workers.

“I have been constantly uploading pictures of my hotel and Thamel online so that people know that it is safe to visit and everything is not destroyed,” she said, adding that until the Chinese government’s advisory on travel to Nepal is lifted, visitor traffic will not increase.

Many Chinese overland tourists from Tibet are unable to visit the country currently as the roads are blocked. Indian pilgrims booked to go to Mansarovar in Tibet have also had to cancel because of the earthquake.

Read also:

Tourism is down, but not out, Om Astha Rai

Where have all the tourists gone?, Tsering Dolker Gurung

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