It's taken decades, but Nepal's tourism has finally outgrown its image of being an appendage to the India circuit. Kathmandu has emerged as a regional tourist hub for visitors going on to Bhutan, Tibet and even India. The average number of days a tourist stays in Nepal has increased dramatically. New international airlines have started services, others have increased their frequencies.
Just when Nepal had recovered from the hijack crisis, we are in the process of shooting ourselves in the foot once more with a two-day national shutdown and a paralysing hotel strike called by unions (see box). This time we can't blame the Indians. The strikes are symptoms of larger problems of this country's malgovernance and a failure of leadership. Tourism contributes 20 percent to Nepal's total foreign exchange earnings, and has a multiplier effect employing 700,000 people. Tourism is a fragile industry, sensitive to even a hint of turmoil.
As if news of the Maoist insurgency beamed all over the world by the international media wasn't bad enough, Nepali tour operators now have to grapple with cancellations, lost bookings and irreparable damage to the country's reputation caused by the bandh and the hotel strike. "It's a Nepali problem, Nepalis have to solve it," says Stan Armington, of Malla Treks and author of the Lonely Planet guidebooks on Nepal. "The politics of bandhs and strikes is only an outward manifestation of the mess the country is in."
The unprecedented two-day bandh has been called by nine leftist parties on 16-17 November to protest the recent fuel price hike. But even more worrisome is the threatened strike by hotel workers, it has the potential to wreck the tourism industry and the economy. Said one exasperated hotelier: "We are facing a total collapse, and the negotiations are going nowhere." It is all in the hands of the political leaders who control the Unions.
The strikes will happen smack in the middle of a major gathering of foreign dignitaries (including Britain's Prince Philip) and more than 700 big names in the global environmental conservation movement attending the annual meeting of the World Wildlife Fund. This is a meeting that has used Kathmandu as a venue to showcase Nepal's conservation efforts over the past four decades that have shown dramatic results in saving endangered animals and habitats. The WWF event will also put the spotlight on Bhaktapur with a gathering of religious heads and representatives on 15 November.
The mayor of Bhaktapur, Ramesh Suwal, is looking forward to the event. Ironically, the Nepal Workers' and Peasants' Party that Suwal represents is part of the nine-party alliance behind the bandh call. But when we asked Suwal whether such shutdowns would hurt tourism prospects, he gave us the party line: "It is up to the parties to think about and consider the effect. I am fully in support of their decision."
There are reports of frantic behind-the-scenes negotiations with the group of nine to either postpone the two-day strike or cut it down to one day. Whatever the decision, the damage has already been done. There has also been a flurry of cancellations for arrivals because of the threatened hotel strike. Negotiations are deadlocked, and appear to be politically-motivated. Said a Hotel Association of Nepal (HAN) source: "In any negotiations, there should be give and take, the Unions are just not prepared to listen."
A thoroughly disgusted Bishnu Prasai, proprietor of Natraj Travels, says: "These bandhs are going to ruin our business, ruin our people and ruin our country. A single-day bandh costs us up to four lakhs, and now like Bangladesh they are talking of two-day bandhs. This is crazy." Others, like Padam Ghaley of Mandala Treks have learnt to live with strikes. "Sometimes we take the risk. Tourists arriving have to be received anyway, so we get extra people to get our clients safely to the hotels in thelagadas (push carts) or rickshaws." Unless he has adventurous clients who don't mind beginning their Nepal trek right at the airport, there are a lot of frayed tempers and it can get quite embarrassing, says Padam.
More than the direct economic loss, it is the long-lasting negative impression of the nation on incoming tourists that is worrying. Tourists arrive at the airport, are hassled by touts and beggars, and find themselves herded to "Tourist Only" vans with armed guards and kept under hotel-arrest for the rest of their stay. The so-called tourist vans were given conspicuous green plates and were supposed to be immune from attacks during bandhs, but no one is willing to take the risk of having the windows smashed.
The resident manager of Everest Hotel, Raju Shah, says tourists visiting Nepal at this time of the year are usually "culture" tourists who don't trek, but want to go sightseeing at the durbar squares or take mountain flights. "Their main purpose of visiting Nepal is defeated because they can't leave the hotel," says Raju.
But if there is anyone in Kathmandu who just can't get enough bandhs, they are the rickshaw pullers who are allowed to pedal around. "This is the day I can earn more than I earn in two months," says Bhim Bahadur, who shuttles passengers in his rickshaw between the airport and Thamel on bandh days, earning about Rs 5,000 in about five to and fro trips.
Many Kathmandu residents also find the traffic-less streets ideal to take walks, or go on bicycle tours along the pollution-free streets to the valley's historic towns. After all, Kathmandu was never meant to be a car town, so this forced pedestriani-sation is actually a boon-or would have been if, like Bangladesh, Nepal did not have a tourism industry.