This was final proof that external events have more impact on Nepal's fragile tourism industry than domestic instability.
After the ceasefire announcement at the end of January, tour operators scrambled to rescue trekking traffic for the spring season. Arrivals grew by a robust 35 percent in February compared to last year. But the war in Iraq and the SARS epidemic in East Asia dashed all hopes.
"The fear of war and the fear of disease combined, have affected the tourists' psychology, and this will take time to heal," admits Tek Bahadur Dangi, the newly-appointed head of the Nepal Tourism Board. After the Iraq crisis, NTB had tried to target Gulf-based expats who sought a safe destination as well as tourists from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and China with its 'Look East' policy.
But the outbreak of the war hurt traffic from Europe and America since flights overfly or stopover in the Middle East. Up to 12 percent of the total long haul traffic to Nepal comes via the Persian Gulf.
The Look East policy backfired after the SARS epidemic spread from Hong Kong to beyond the region. Hotel Association of Nepal (HAN) records show a 30 percent cancellation in bookings. Most hotels have occupancies below 25 percent, and restaurants established to cater to tourists are repositioning themselves to target locals and expats. While the tourist hotels we talked to declined to assess the percentage of their clientele cancelling due to the threat of SARS alone, they all admitted that cancellations from international tourists increased after last month.
Nepal's tourism is affected because tourism in India, the Gulf and Far East are affected. The only sector that has come through unscathed seems to be mountaineering and high-altitude trekking. The panic really spread after the World Health Organisation (WHO) advisory on 4 April advising travellers to avoid countries that reported SARS cases. In its first-ever notice of this kind, the WHO asked anyone experiencing SARS symptoms of high fever, dry cough, shortness of breathing and breathing difficulties to consult a doctor. It also called for international travellers departing from affected areas to be screened for possible SARS at their point of departure.
The WHO notice was disastrous for Nepal because it suggested avoiding Hong Kong and Thailand-the major gateways for travellers coming to Nepal. Admittedly, the actual numbers of tourists coming from East Asia itself has never been significant, but a lot of inbound tourists (even from Europe) fly in from the east because of easier connections.
NTB's 'Look East' campaign is now on hold. "Promotion fairs in Malaysia and China were scheduled for the next two months but the big launches may have to be reconsidered, if not cancelled entirely," says Dangi. Other campaigns to accelerate a tourism revival have also been badly hit: the new Qatar Airways flights from Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur and the Royal Nepal Airlines flights to Malaysia and Singapore. Royal Nepal Airlines is thinking of terminating its new flight in Kuala Lumpur till the SARS scare blows over. But its Hong Kong and Bangkok routes are doing well.
Assistant tourism minister Rabi Bhakta Shrestha went on the inaugural flight last week and negotiated a visa-on-arrival for Nepalis going to Malaysia on Royal Nepal Airlines and the establishment of each others' embassies in Kathmandu and Kuala Lumpur. He told us: "The timing may have been bad, but this route has tremendous potential once the epidemic dies down."
With a war raging in West Asia and an epidemic in East Asia, there is just one more idea that could still work: India. Indian tourists are not travelling because of the war and flu and Nepal could tap these homebound Indians, especially with the hot season only weeks away. "The problem has been that we have never looked at the vast Indian market, and even today we see NTB slow to react," one travel agent told us. "The Indian market is intact, let's start moving them here by increasing flights and offering packages." It seems Nepal needs a 'look south' policy to revive tourism.
But flights to and from Nepal and India are full even though Hong Kong faces a 22 percent cut in all scheduled flights. Singapore is losing $16 million per week in tourist spending and Thailand is suffering from a 20 percent cut in tourist bookings, which is expected to slide even lower.
"The arrival from southeast Asia will take more time to pick up than we initially anticipated," HAN President Narendra Bajracharya told us. The SARS panic is spreading faster than the virus itself, and although no cases have been reported in Nepal the government says it is taking precautions, asking passengers arriving from East Asia to give details about their stay. It has also set aside a quarantine area with four beds at the Teku Hospital for suspected cases. Says Dr Benu Bahadur Karki of the Health Ministry, "We are just following WHO guidelines."
The CIWEC Clinic Travel Medicine Centre in Kathmandu confirms what we already know-travellers are avoiding East Asia and Nepal is experiencing a slump in tourist arrivals. What surprises CIWEC's Dr Prativa Pandey (above) is that SARS hasn't been detected in Nepal yet. "The threat looms large, but amazingly Nepal has escaped the infection so far," she says.
In the CIWEC clinic there are notices that anyone with SARS symptoms should immediately report to the clinic. But aside from masked staff, there are no other visible precautions.
Nepal has fights to all the countries detected with SARS-four weekly connections to Hong Kong, one to Shanghai and Singapore, and daily hauls to Bangkok. Fortunately, Bangkok, from where Nepal gets most of the East Asia traffic, has been able to keep the infection at bay.
Thai airport authorities have imposed a vigorous screening mechanism and so far Bangkok has recorded only one imported case of SARS. India, the other gateway to Nepal, also has not reported any cases of SARS.
Dr Pandey believes it would be na?ve to imagine we are safe. "The danger of a Nepali national bringing SARS into the country is far more likely than contracting the disease from a tourist," she says. More than 50,000 Nepalis who work in Hong Kong travel regularly to Nepal. "We are not prepared to handle an epidemic, prevention is the only viable method for us."