While holidaying in India a few weeks ago, this Beed missed the symposium on "Prospects and Problems of Tourism Development between Nepal and India" organised by the Hotel Association of Nepal. So, this week, we will ponder on the need to woo the Indian tourist, and ways to do so.
I will admit it. It gets tiresome travelling in India-for no reason other than the two questions every citizen of this kingdom is relentlessly subjected to. "So, tell us about 1 June," and "What's going on with the emergency?" In most part because of the absence of any voice in the Indian media that can claim more than a parachute jumper's familiarity with Nepal, our southern neighbours seem to think this is a country in such extreme turmoil, that the electricity is switched off at 6PM. No surprise, then, that most well-wishers' attempts are directed at dispelling these absurd doubts, rather than selling Nepal as a tourist destination.
But even assuming we can dispel these doubts, we have to deal with an appalling lack of consensus as to what precise part of our product we need to promote to the Indian market. The whole world is wooing Indian tourists now, and Nepal's image desperately needs to be revamped from the current "honeymoon upgrade from Ooty and Darjeeling" to something a little more current, a little more exciting.
So, what can Nepal offer? Most of the younger Indians who can afford to travel see Nepal as a destination where their grandparents undertook a pilgrimage and their parents went for their shopping-filled honeymoon. For India's cash-rich youth, Nepal does not feature on their travel map-they can and do go to the casinos of Macau and Vegas, and the malls of Dubai and Singapore. Nepal has never really been able to target the Indian market specifically, even in the past. The burgeoning of the conference and convention market was an accident, and so are the tourists who come in on chartered luxury buses. We simply do not understand that within each potential market there are different segments. The result: we sell whitewater rafting and Pashupati in the same package, and then wonder why we find no takers.
Indian youth are the segment we should be aiming for-they have purchasing power, and spending on holidays is a major part of their expense pie. And that market is only growing, with even banks supporting financing schemes for holidays. We need to tell this group of consumers that bungy jumping in Nepal can be as exciting as in New Zealand, and at a fraction of the cost, that Nepali safaris are real value for money compared with South Africa or Kenya, that even those old stand-bys, trekking and climbing are dirt-cheap and a lot more convenient than in Switzerland.
Despite our limited market savvy, things are getting better, though. The relaxation of the passport requirement for Indian tourists under 18 comes as a bit of a relief-after all, people who have passports can also get foreign currency, and so would just as well go on cheap packages to south-east Asian countries. The government may not be able to market Nepal, and may have made no use at all of the media frenzy during the SAARC summit, but they've managed to at least get rid of one annoyance. Now it is time for those in the private sector and travel trade organisations to show what they can do. Our experiment in restricting foreign travel agencies from operating in Nepal has gone on long enough, given that our local agencies have not delivered when it comes to selling hard in the Indian market. Why not try and lure international agencies who have large operations in India to operate in Nepal. Protectionism may not always be the best weapon.
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