With rising affluence, Chinese are flying out on holidays in ever greater numbers with a spurt in arrivals in Nepal in the past year.
After roaming countries in the region with big overseas Chinese communities like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand Chinese tourists are opting for adventure destinations like Nepal.
Indeed, in July alone the number of Chinese tourists coming to Nepal by air has more than doubled to 3,306 compared to the same month last year. This number does not include Chinese who traveled overland via Tibet. If this trend continues, the Chinese could overtake Americans as the second largest source of visitors after India.
"We are really encouraged by the increase of mainland China travelers, especially because they come in the July-August lean season and this evens out arrivals throughout the year," says Prachanda Man Shrestha of the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB).
The Chinese seem to be attracted by the exotic Himalaya, Nepal's Hindu and Buddhist culture, its proximity and the increase in the number of flights.
"The fast rising numbers of Chinese visitors have filled up the tourist vacuum during the monsoon off season," says Suman Pandey of Explore Himalaya Tour and Advernture.
Chinese tourists can be seen on Sarangkot for the sunrise view, dining in Thamel, packing the Mt Everest sightseeing flights and moving in groups in Bhaktapur Darbar Square.
"What attracts me most is the unique culture and religious practices," Zhang Liusha from Chengdu told us at Basantapur this week. "People here are so friendly, Nepalis on the streets even greet us in Chinese."
Zhang shows a necklace that she says she wanted to purchase from a sidewalk vendor, but after chatting with her for a while the shop owner gave it to her as a present. "Where else in the world does that happen?" asked Zhang, who intends to stay in Nepal for ten more days.
Zhou Lou from Chongqing is encouraged by how easy it was to get to Nepal. "I got my visa in Lhasa and it was all very smooth," she said.
Unlike western backpackers who come to Nepal mainly for trekking, Chinese tourists are more inclined to cultural activities and soft adventures. Material comfort lists high in their consideration, and they are put off by Kathmandu's daunting traffic and pollution. And although there are more flights, flights to Nepal from China are very expensive, sometimes it is cheaper to fly to Europe.
The NTB's Shrestha says the only solution is a strong national airline to tap the huge Chinese tourism potential. "Sadly, the priority for the government now is a stable constitution, rather than stable economic growth." Still, NTB is planning to open an office in Beijing and Shanghai, and Shrestha says extending the Qinghai-Tibet railway to the Nepal border would boost Chinese tourism even more.
Air China's Nepal manager, Wu Yong Qiang, is also enthusiastic about the growth in air traffic. From less than 3 flights a week in 2008, Air China, China southern and China Eastern now operate almost daily flights to Chinese destinations like Kunming, Lhasa, Guangzhou and Chengdu from Kathmandu. He says: "There is a big rush during Chinese New Year and the Golden Week period, tickets have to be booked way in advance."