SURESH RAJ NEUPANE
Chitwan is a world-renowned national park and has become synonymous with wildlife safaris like Kenya's Masai Mara. A key role was played by resorts like Tiger Tops, which have promoted Chitwan internationally since the 1970s.
However, Tiger Tops and seven other resorts inside Chitwan have been closed since early this year because of a government move to re-evaluate the impact they are having on park ecology. The dispute has been complicated by rivalry between resorts inside and outside the park.
But 450km away, Bardiya National Park has become a beneficiary of Chitwan's closures. Bardiya has only 22 rhinos and 19 tigers and a dozen or so wild elephants, but wildlife viewing is said to be easier here because of the sparse undergrowth.
"Last year this time we had 40 per cent occupancy, this year we are fully booked," says Gauri Mallakar of Tiger Tops Karnali, a branch of Tiger Tops Chitwan. She adds: "Tourists love this place, it has a unique ecology."
Indeed, these days flights to Nepalganj are full of tourists on wildlife safaris to Bardiya, most of them British and American. Nancy Reid from the United States was just getting off an elephant after a safari, and was breathless with excitement: "It was incredible, we saw rhinos up close, I'm going to come back."
Conservationist Ramesh Thapa of Bardiya National Park says the park sees a lot of repeat tourists because of its unique habitat. "Also, Bardiya is not as crowded as Chitwan, and the park is really wild," he explains.
More than 500 tourists came to Bardiya in August-October, compared to only 350 at the same time last year. But hoteliers like Mohan Aryal of Forest Hideway Hotel and Cottage says Bardiya could do much better if the government invested in infrastructure.
"Electricity, telephones, direct flights, and bus routes from Pokhara and Kathmandu would double the number of tourists coming here," he says. "We also need more safari elephants."
Tiger Tops's Mallakar says tourists booked to Chitwan came to Bardiya instead and loved it. The resort brought some of its staff to Bardiya too. Maybe they need to bring the safari elephants along too.
To read about plans to expand Bardiya National Park and other stories, please see this week's issue of Nepali Times.