This point was brought home to me last week, when I reached Rara after a six-day walk from Simikot in Humla. In Rara, I expected hot showers, a chance to spend money on good food, a room with a lakeside view, a small natural history museum with details on the local flora and fauna, marked walking trails, and maybe even an internet connection.
Instead, what I found was the ramshackle log cabin-like Danfe Guest House, run by a political operative, with a dark and dingy kitchen that served fare no better than what one finds on isolated Humla trails. The record book of the nearby army checkpost showed that little over 200 tourists visited the lake all of last year, most as members of trekking expeditions, while only a handful visited it during the 10-year (1996-2006) Maoist insurgency. The guesthouse owner shrugged when asked about his plans for Visit Nepal Year 2011, which is due to start in less than 70 days.
The benign neglect of Rara as a saleable destination points to three bigger tourism-related mistakes Nepal makes.
Political interference: I asked the guesthouse owner whether he had earned his lease via competitive bidding. He smiled, and refused to answer. It was not hard to see that his political connections, rather than his tourism knowhow, worked for him, and will continue to work for him as long as his political masters remain in power.
Nepal Tourism Board is a symbol of public-private partnership, but it's not immune to political pressure. The trouble with interference is not that it does not raise money from tourism. It does Ė to a modest extent. But its greatest harm is that it destroys incentives for others in the private sector to move in to offer diverse services competitively. Why compete when your competitors easily get the contracts through political blessing? The result is that
the size of the tourism pie is smaller for all.
From destinations to products: The mindset of tourism policy makers has long been shaped by a destination-oriented approach, which takes it for granted that tourists will come to Nepal. It is a passive approach, which goes not much beyond identifying places in pretty promotional materials.
What this fails to take in account is the intense competition from abroad that Nepal now faces. By contrast, a product-oriented mindset views a destination as a tourism product, and thinks of the product in terms of uniqueness, features, benefits, services, market segments and the like. All of these require an understanding and satisfaction of customer demands, which makes more money in the long run.
What's in it for the locals? Tourism is already the biggest job-creating industry globally. It needs to be recast as a good source of local jobs in Nepal, especially in the poorest districts that are rich in natural beauty. The features, the services and the benefits of a tourism product call for local knowhow, local contacts and the availability of local manpower. A decent hotel near Rara not only provides employment to Mugu's people but also attracts more visitors and copycat competitors, which can only boost overall employment.
Well planned tourism development guidelines driven by pro-local regulations, along with a competitive market, has the potential to turn places like Rara Lake into flourishing local economies for many Nepalis.