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Fixing what’s broken

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015

Nepal’s tourism was in crisis long before the earthquake struck

tourism in post-quake Nepal

‘Build Back Better’ has become a mantra for post-earthquake rehabilitation in Nepal. As a motto it strives for an ideal outcome: the reconstruction of roads, schools, homes, government buildings, hospitals, utilities should not just be physical rebuilding, but restructuring each area from the ground up.

Nepal was a disaster zone long before the earthquakes struck. Education was in a shamble because despite enrolment numbers being up, the quality was poor. The health sector was either over-commercialised or under-served, putting basic medical care out of reach of most of the population. Kathmandu’s haphazard urbanisation and unsafe buildings make it a ticking timebomb that was not defused by the 7.8 quake on 25 April.

The root reason for all these problems has been poor governance,  political unwillingness and a disturbing lack of accountability on the part of elected officials. The earthquake, therefore, has given us the chance for a paradigm shift not just in the 15 districts affected but in the rest of the country as well. And the constitution offers the vehicle to make politics more just and equitable.

Much has already been said in this space about maximising job-creation during the reconstruction process, and the National Planning Commission has taken the lead in ensuring that this happens. This would be the start of a longterm process of reversing the outflow of our desperate young men and women to work overseas in appalling conditions.

The other mainstay of Nepal’s economy is tourism and this has taken a direct hit from the earthquake. Saturation coverage in the international media of the immediate aftermath has spread the perception that Nepal is completely destroyed. The fact that many tourist spots in Nepal like Pokhara, Chitwan, Lumbini, Muktinath or Mustang are not affected is not widely known.

In addition, alarmist travel advisories by some governments have frightened off potential visitors. Insurance companies take their cue from these blanket notices and the high premium has is further deterrence. Happily, as we write this, the United States, UK, New Zealand have relaxed their advisories and there are indications that they will be revised further as independent assessments of the Everest and Annapurna trekking trails and Kathmandu’s heritage sites become available.

Nepal’s tourism was also in crisis long before the earthquake. Visitor numbers were stagnant, spending per tourist was down, average duration of stay was getting shorter, repeat visitors were getting rarer.

It isn’t hard to figure out why: the quality of the product was going down with the chaos at the airport, the visa lines and the squalour of Kathmandu. The Annapurna Circuit and other trekking areas were marred by new highways. Chitwan suffered a 70 per cent drop in visitors after lodges were relocated and Sauraha became unpleasant. There were concerns of air safety for domestic travel after a series of crashes.

Air fare was another factor: it cost more for a tourist to fly from Kathmandu to Rara than to fly to Europe. Helicopter rescue in Nepal is as expensive as in the United States and is the highest in the world. Then there were the high profile disasters like the Everest avalanche last year followed by government bungling on permits, the tragic loss of lives in the Annapurna blizzard raising questions of the lack of early warning and shelters along the trail.

The ‘Turning Point in Tourism: Role of International and National Tour Operators’ conference organised by the group, Samarth, last week drew attention to these factors already affecting Nepal’s tourism before the earthquake. Robin Baustead of the Great Himalayan Trail Alliance said: “Nepal has fantastic mountains to climb, but it is becoming a much harder place to climb them in.”

Visitor numbers to Nepal have gone down in the past. It plummeted by 40 percent after the 2001 royal palace massacre, went down by 80 percent during the 2003 Gulf War, and shrank to a third of normal during he Maoist conflict. But in all these cases, the arrival numbers revived in a few months. This time, even the most optimistic scenario predicts a 70 per cent drop in the autumn season, and a 40 per cent drop in bookings for the spring. It will take longer to bounce back this time.

The Samarth conference drew up a checklist of things to be done to revive tourism revenue:

Set up a verifiable third party online knowledge base with up-to-date information on the safety status of trekking trails

–¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Relaunch the Nepal brand in target markets, especially India and China

–¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Clean up the airport, streamline visas, make it easy for visitors

–¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Don‚Äôt reduce prices, improve safety and quality of services

Read also:

Rebuilding ourselves Kunda Dixit 

An opportunity for all: Nepal is open to visitors

Fixing tourism Karma Dolma Gurung

Tourism is down, but not out Om Astha Rai 

Where have all the tourists gone? Tsering Dolker Gurung 

Trekking in solitude Peregrin Frissell

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One Response to “Fixing what’s broken”

  1. Ravi raj kaur on Says:

    Say tourism say normality. The outside world is never better than inside, but when you have to wait a looong time for something in Thamel, people do not return. My impression was that Pokhara is so clean and service is just wonderful. Why Kathmandu cannot do this? So quality control must be implemented. And I hear that the only good mountains are here that is not true Europe and Latin America have great sceneries.
    Yet there are many reasons to be and come here, we lost the relation with nature, here in spite of city pollution there is agriculture, there are rice fields, if you do not have to meditate so much contemplate on living and dying.
    People should ease up and relax quit the xenophobia, we are all human beings and this piece of the earth has good things, and annoying stuff. The lack of education is a problem, no sense of reality in young people. So if you could include foreigners not just as counsellors but as almost nepali who stays here a long time you will see that they bring people and keep coming as I did for more than 21 years, this includes physical disorders because of the diet and so. I am against tourism but i am too old to work. I speak a lot with nepali dogs, similar to ours.

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