POKHARA-Tourism in the time of insurgency requires a lot of ingenuity and innovation. Entrepreneurs have to devise new methods to survive the slump and exploit whatever opportunities are available.
In the business of regional aviation, Cosmic Airlines is trying to break new grounds with its no-frills flight to Dhaka and New Delhi. The bus service of Greenline Tours goes one step further even at a time when highways have become dangerous: its intercity carriers are full service packages that offer complimentary bottled water and even a free lunch. The service is so sophisticated it even keeps the latest issue of the Nepali Times in the seat pockets!
When one gets to Pokhara, one realises hoteliers there haven't been as inventive. Most continue to chase increasingly rare western tourists even though it is now clear domestic and Indian visitors keep the lakeside humming even during winter.
And they will even pay more. Across Nepal the word 'tourist' has become synonymous with 'white farang' and nowhere more so than in Pokhara. Menu cards on display along the lakeside seem to be designed to frighten away orthodox Hindus and Muslims from across the border with non-kosher meals of beefsteak and pork. Few hoteliers seem to have realised the importance of offering room rates in Nepali rupees.
There is no reputed eatery on the lakeside that serves staple diets of Indians and Nepalis at reasonable rates. No doubt, phapar ko dhindo at the Thakali Kitchen is an eating exotica but such a luxury can't be an everyday affair. Very few Nepali visitors can afford to pay the premium price of a plate of rice in restaurants that have dance-troupes outnumbering diners. Lakeside is badly in need of hotels and restaurants that are functional and cater to a changing tourism demographic.
One of the reasons most Nepalis don't complain about rates and services of Pardi, Baidam and Lakeside hotels could be that many of them are here seminaring. SUVs with diplomatic number-plates vastly outnumber taxis in front of all the fancy bars at the Barahi Temple boatway junction.
Another drawback of tourism entrepreneurship of Nepal in general and Pokhara in particular is its traditional nature. Innkeepers behave like landlords who are doing Nepali and Indian visitors a favour by allowing them to rent rooms. Between the hustling of touts at the airport and scowls of hotel owners, the service orientation of the hospitality industry is conspicuous by its absence.
Even some upscale hotels have become shabby due to prolonged disrepair. Reedy lawns, creaky furniture, broken faucets, yellowing bathtubs, and faulty locks show the apathy of their owners and managers. Clearly, there is a huge mismatch between the expectations of entrepreneurs and the customers. One gets the feeling Pokhara has given up without even trying.
Shop fronts along the banks of Phewa lake look neat. The streets aren't potholed like in Kathmandu and the sidewalks are a joy to walk on. Ironically, the eyesore on the lakeside is not tasteless hotel architecture but Ratna Mandir which occupies a large chunk of the lake front. With its prison-like high walls topped with concertina wires and ominous looking pillboxes, it isn't a friendly place that builds confidence among visitors. Even the shutter shops look more agreeable.
Having reached the limit of growth possible under a free-for-all competitive entrepreneurship, tourism in Pokhara now needs some planned intervention to reorient it towards domestic and regional tourism. It needs creative thinking: why not tap tourists with direct flights from Banaras and Delhi? Why not ferry Indian visitors up from Nepalganj and Biratnagar? Why not build that long awaited new airport? Offer comfortable and affordable lodgings which make their profit from added services rather than room rents that try to wring visitors dry. More eateries on the lines of Kailash Hotel of Chipledhunga and more cafes patterned after Panthi Dairy will attract hordes of middle-class Nepalis catching some shopping at Saleways in between trips to Bindyabasini and Sarangkot.
John Maynard Keynes once said, "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economists". Pokhara may not recover bad debts that financed follies like Fulbari but innovative and planned development will allow it to get over the present low cycle.
They just need to follow the abundant examples of innovation like Cosmic, Greenline and one of the most faithful believers in Pokhara's future, Avia Club, which has stayed through good times and bad.