Not so long ago, the tourism industry was on the verge of collapse due to the poor security situation and negative publicity brought on by the decade-long conflict. Nepal Tourism Year-2011 (NTY-2011) is now underway, and the country is hoping to welcome a million tourists. The government and tourism entrepreneurs are eyeing NTY-2011 as an opportunity to rebuild Nepal's tarnished image, and promote it as a safe and exciting destination for tourists once again. But the continuing political disarray and uncertainty haunting the country is threatening to stymie these ambitions.
Thanks to the delay in presentation of the budget, NTY-2011 was not promoted sufficiently at an international level. Worse, political parties and their sister organisations always seem ready to stage protests, strikes or bandas. Not much has been done to develop physical infrastructure, manage the international airport or improve the human resources available to tourism either. Nepal Airlines Corporation still has a shortage of aircraft, and the airports are mismanaged and manned by badly trained staff. Nepal Tourism Board's websites have not been updated for a year; some carry news from five years ago.
Nearly 585,000 tourists visited Nepal up to November 2010, so boosting this figure to one million should not be such a difficult task in principle. The real challenge, entrepreneurs say, is to change the perceptions of visitors to Nepal by making it safe for them.
Karna Shakya, a tourism entrepreneur and the coordinator of Visit Nepal Year-1998, warns that if the tourism year fails or backfires, it will take another 20 years for the sector to recover. "NTY-2011 should be promoted on a war footing," he advises. "The international media should be invited to shoot in locations across Nepal. The sorry state of the international airport should be improved. Volunteers should be mobilised to take care of the tourists and most importantly, flights should be on time."
Kishore Thapa, Secretary at the Civil Aviation Ministry, says that it is encouraging that tourist arrivals have been rising even when all other economic indicators are declining. But he adds that it is more important to promote a positive and hospitable image rather than focus on bringing in a million tourists.
It's not as if nothing has been done to prepare for NTY-2011. Several festivals are being organised across the country by Nepal Tourism Board and the working committee of NTY-2011. Five-star hotels in Kathmandu alone have invested Rs 500 million in increasing their capacity over the last year. Luxury hotels have opened up in Kanchanpur and Biratnagar. Government officials, businessmen, Non Resident Nepalis as well as goodwill ambassadors (see box) are also doing their part to promote NTY-2011. The government has invested Rs 1 billion to upgrade airports in the country. The airports in Talcha, Simikot and Tumlingtar will be blacktopped in four months and a terminal has already been constructed in Dhangadhi. The runway in Pokhara is being extended by three kilometres and the runway at the international airport is being upgraded as well.
PICS: KIRAN PANDAY
Unfortunately, the threat of political disruption is like a sword dangling over the campaign. Nineteen political parties expressed solidarity towards NTY-2011 by publicly committing to keep the year free of bandas, strikes and protest programs. But entrepreneurs are worried that the Maoists, who announced plans for NTY-2011 while in government themselves, will be the first to go on strike once UNMIN leaves on 15 January.
Former tourism minister and Maoist MP Hisila Yami says it is difficult to say that there will not be any strikes. "There was an elected government in place when we declared the tourism year. Anything can happen now that there is no consensus." Tourism year may be important, but not as much as political agreement, peace and the constitution, Yami says.
Despite everything, Nepal can still make NTY-2011 a success if the government and the private sector are willing to make the effort. Shakya says, "If only the political parties keep their promises to the people, this campaign will be successful. Let us hope that the Maoists don't throttle their own baby," Shakya says.
Although quality advertisements could not be produced due to the lack of a budget, Nepal has come up with some interesting promotional ideas. Khagendra Thapa Magar, the world's shortest man, has been declared a goodwill ambassador for the campaign. Other ambassadors include Miss Nepal 2010 Sadicchya Nepal, Mount Everest summiteers, Indian-Nepali singer Prashant Tamang, and the band Sukarma. Singer Ani Choying Dolma is also expected to sign on. But how many tourists will be drawn in by promotional slogans like "The world's shortest man invites you to the country of the world's tallest mountain" remains to be seen.