The timing of the present crisis couldn't have been worse. February First happened just as bookings for the spring trekking season were firming up and the travel trade was looking forward to recouping losses of the past years.
Although there was a 12 percent increase in tourist arrivals last year with 380,000 visitors, it was still way below the 1998 peak of 500,000. Now, things are gloomy again.
There have been mass cancellations after news of the king's move and the subsequent Maoist blockade of highways. January had already shown a 16 percent drop compared to January 2004 and February's figures are expected to be worse.
After the emergency was declared, Kathmandu-based embassies have upgraded their travel advisories. Even the French, who have been the most laissez-faire about advisories on Nepal have posted warnings, mainly because of communication difficulties after 1 February.
"We have given up hope for this spring season," says Trekking Agents' Association Nepal (TAAN) President Deepak Mahat, "Now all we can do is hope for the best for the autumn season." Trekking agents have received mass cancellations by groups booked for the March-May season and the only people still coming are individual travellers who in any case are not deterred by advisories.
Worst hit have been Indian tourists because of the saturation coverage of the Nepal crisis in the Indian media. Even Indian gamblers who used to throng Kathmandu's casinos are thin on the ground. People coming overland from India has plummeted to zero. "The army is ready to take the tourist vehicles in convoys," said an NTB official, "But tourists normally don't agree to move like that."
The tourism multiplier benefited everyone from taxi drivers in Kathmandu to Nepal's national parks, porters, tea shop owners along trails and even Maoists who taxed hikers. Now, with trekkers down to a trickle, everyone is hit. The only ones who have come out unscathed are domestic private airlines which are compensating for dollar-paying tourists with a record numbers of passengers because of blocked highways.
But international airlines have suffered. Qatar Airways brought only five passengers from Malaysia on a flight this week, although its Doha flights are full. Cosmic Air flew only 12 passengers to Dhaka on the same day. Sahara Air suspended flights and is due to resume only on15 March. Austrian Airlines has suspended flights for March. Airlines that used to depend on tourists are turning now to ferrying Nepali migrant workers to the Gulf. Phuket Air, scheduled to begin Bangkok-Kathmandu-Dubai flights next month is doing just that.
Although the Sagarmatha, Manang and Mustang regions are trouble-free, tour operators are finding it hard to convince visitors that trips will not be disrupted. Among those still braving it are tourists from other conflict zones like Israel who don't pay attention to advisories anyway. In 2004, Nepal had 108 percent more Israeli tourists compared to the previous year.
The only hope for tour operators now is Tibet. There is heavy booking for spring into the monsoon for Lhasa-bound Kathmandu stopovers. "Tibet is looking good," says NATTA Vice President Dhruba Narayan Shrestha, "The fact that Kathmandu is ok is spreading through word-of-mouth. We are going to amplify this good news through a travel mart here."
Even so, the Maoist blockade of the Arniko Highway since 1 February has hurt overlanders and many have had to be ferried to and from Tatopani by helicopter.