22-28 May 2015 #759

Tourism is down, but not out

The normally busy Thamel intersection wears a deserted look during what should be peak tourist season
Om Astha Rai

Besides the death and destruction, last month’s earthquake has dealt the most devastating blow to Nepal’s tourism industry. Hotels are damaged, trekking routes have been wiped out, and Kathmandu’s World Heritage sites lie in ruins.

In the first weeks after the disaster, flights out of Nepal were full of tourists, then came the cancellations of booking, not just for May but for the rest of the year. Many hotels in Thamel have zero occupancy, although some of the bigger hotels have relief workers, aid agency representatives and crew of rescue flights.

Photo: Bikram Rai

Despite this, tourism entrepreneurs, experts and officials believe that the impact of the Gorkha Earthquake will not be long-term, and such is the draw of Nepal, its mountains and people that tourists will start coming back from the autumn season. In fact, this newspaper has started a social media campaign #VisitNepalAutumn2015, advising those who want to help Nepal to come here, go on long treks, use homestays and help create jobs.

After the earthquake, several countries warned their citizens not to visit this country except if they were involved in rescue and relief. Today, Thamel wears a deserted look, the Everest Trail and other trekking routes are abandoned, and even Pokhara, where there wasn’t much damage, is largely empty.

Hotel owners, trekking companies and travel agents say tourism may actually start picking up even during the monsoon, since that is the ideal time to visit Manang, Mustang and Dolpo, which are in the Himalayan rainshadow. Tibet-bound transit tourists would also be making stopovers, as in previous years.

“Nepal has a niche adventure tourism market and that category of visitors will not be deterred for long,” says Yogendra Shakya of the Hotel Association of Nepal (HAN). “We just need to spread the word that our infrastructure is intact and ready before the autumn season.”

But he admits that there will still be residual hesitancy about visiting Nepal. “No matter how well we promote Nepal’s tourism and say all is well here, they will still have their doubts,” he says, stressing on the need for a creative promotion strategy.

“For example, this would be the time for our prime minister to invite Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi to visit Janakpur, Lumbini and Muktinath where he could not go last time,” Shakya says. “It would send a strong message to Indian pilgrim tourists and the world that Nepal is open for business.”

The international community has gone out of its way to help Nepal, and tourism entrepreneurs say that could be Nepal’s strongest selling point. We just need to convert that goodwill into a willingness to visit.

The government can actively promote trekking areas of the country not affected by the earthquake, pilgrimages, and conference tourism to get the industry back on its feet. “Tourists should not be worried about Nepal, in a few months the hotels and infrastructure will all be restored,” says former HAN president, Shyam Lal Kakshapati. In fact, 90 per cent of the hotels are not damaged, and many that are can be repaired and retrofitted.

A government committee has inspected 15 hotel buildings, and only one of the wings of the Kathmandu Guest House in Thamel has a red sticker. All five-star hotels in the capital have got safe green stickers.

Amar Shakya, a member of the committee, says inspection was halted after the 12 May aftershock and will resume. “Our preliminary inspection shows most hotel buildings have not suffered structural damage,” he says.

The government has already formed a Tourism Recovery Committee in partnership with HAN and Trekking Agencies Association of Nepal (TAAN) to repair damaged trekking routes, heritage sites and promote safe tourism destinations.

"Rebuilding the nation will automatically help revive tourism," says Sangita Shrestha of Dwarika's Hotel, which has opened a camp in Kathmandu for 326 displaced people from Sindupalchok. The hotel is designing special promotions for visitors from South Asia.

The earthquake was just the latest in a series of disasters to hit Nepal. Last year’s Everest avalanche killed 16 climbers, and the Annapurna blizzard in October left 80 people dead including foreign trekkers. Despite this, a record number of tourists visited Nepal in 2014, boosted by an influx of visitors from China and India.

Tourism has a capacity to heal itself, the only question is how will the Nepal Tourism Board and the government deal with the necessary international promotion to bring visitors back in 2015 and beyond.

Read also:

Monumental loss, Stéphane Huët

Langtang lament

Extreme everest, Bhrikuti Rai and Matt Miller

After the storm, Kunda Dixit

Not all are gone

Many tourists from Nepal boarded repatriation planes after 25 April, but a few can still be seen around deserted Thamel and Patan Darbar Square.

Photo: Stéphane Huët

Alyse Speyer arrived in Nepal on 21 April with her Brazilian friend, Tiago Perera. The two wanted to tour the country but after the earthquake have been busy helping people affected by the disaster. They were joined by Dutch Rinske De Jong in their efforts. The three collected funds from friends back home and donated the money to monks providing relief materials to Lamjung and Rasuwa.

Like them, Ricky Smith and Carl Nickel (pic) also put their tour on hold after the earthquake. “We raised money for the [Red Cross](http:// www.redcross.org/) and we accompanied them on some relief missions in Pokhara,” said Nickel.

Back in Kathmandu, they have gone sightseeing and found the valley hasn’t lost everything. “I will definitely recommend friends to visit Nepal,” Smith told us, “as I think tourism is an important source of income for the locals.”

Some travellers even advanced their plans to come to the country. Marc Van Wynsberghe who had planned to fly to Nepal end of May, brought forward his flight to support friends here.

After 10 days in Kathmandu Valley, Van Wynsberghe regrets not being able to see the beautiful monuments that were destroyed in the quake. “The authorities in Nepal should communicate on destinations that are safe and still practicable for tourism,” he said.

Some tourism professionals understood the need of rethinking their strategy in Nepal. Alex Le Beuan, director of Shanti Travel, a tour operator in India, said they are focusing on destinations that haven’t been hit by the earthquake like Dolpo, Mustang and Kanchenjunga. “We are also reorienting on more immersive programs where tourists share with local people,” he added.

Even if some travellers are conscious of the importance of tourism, it seems that they don't always have the last decision. Emilie Pascal, a Mauritian studying in France, had booked her tickets to Nepal for August. “After the earthquake, my insurance company informed me they weren’t insuring my trip because of the high risks,” she told Nepali Times.

Ann Young is director of Trekking Adventures in New Zealand which sends 200 clients to Nepal annually. She worries that media coverage might dissuade travellers. “TV in New Zealand only shows the worse-hit areas,” she said. “But a lot of places like Mustang are just fine.”

Says Le Beuan: “Our role is also to tell our customers once things are stabilised, tourism will have a really positive impact for the people of Nepal.”

Stéphane Huët

Read also:

Coming out stronger from crisis, Anjana Rajbhandary

Small is more useful

Shaken but strong, Jan Møller Hansen

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