It has become a sort of ritual that once the temperature in New Delhi hits 40 degrees (that Celsius) we start seeing the exodus to Kathmandu of foreign correspondents covering South Asia from the Indian capital. Close on their heels come Indian tourists, refugees from the sizzling plains. Flush with cash from unprecedented economic growth of more than five percent for over five years in a row, the Indian middle-class is migrating en masse to chill out.
But unlike in the past, fewer and fewer Indians are coming to the land of Pashupatinath, casinos, Hong Kong markets and Himalaya. Even low-budget honeymooners from Bengal and Orissa are keeping away from Pokhara. It's bad news for Nepali tourism. It was the Indians who kept the hotel rooms occupied after the Europeans and Japanese depart after the April and October peaks.
There are many reasons why Indians aren't coming: adverse coverage in Indian media and the requirement of passport or voters' IDs for tourists flying into Nepal are just the two of them. The reason why we are fourth foreign destination of choice for over four million Indian tourists who go abroad every year may lie in the way we treat Indians in this country.
At the airport, taxi-drivers consider every Indian fare game for fleecing. Front office clerks in five-star hotels make Indian guests feel unwanted. Stewards at upscale eateries treat Indians as if they are doing them a favour by serving them. Shopkeepers handle Indian customers with barely concealed contempt. OK, there is some truth in the fact that Indian tourists with their noisy families are demanding, bothersome and bossy, but isn't our slogan supposed to be "Guest is God"? And despite all this, if Indians still come, the credit must go to Lord Pashupatinath. We do our best to make Indians feel unwelcome.
With so many not-so-subtle messages imbibed by Indians visiting Nepal, what effect would the "Postcards from Nepal" in Femina sponsored by the Nepal Tourism Board have? If the best customer is the repeat customer, and the best publicity is "word-of-mouth" we probably need to lavish care on the Indian tourists that are already here rather than going after the ones planning to visit us in the near future. Is the Nepal Tourism Board aware that their promotional blitz in India will boomerang if the tourism-trade does not get its act together here in Nepal? When the trade is not ready to receive customers, soft-sell may be better than hard-sell.
Then there is the growing lawlessness in Nepal. Oh, but aren't Indians used to that, you may say. But why would anyone spend a holiday at a destination where you could be thrown out of your hotel at the dead of the night because the owners decide to go on strike. Where you risk being stranded at the airport because some party has decided to declare a chakka jam? Where you are swindled by a shopkeeper and there is nobody to listen to your complaint? An Indian willing to put up with that may think, why not go to Kashmir? At least they have their army up there.
We have to decide once and for all: do we want Indian tourists or not? The middle-class Nepali's disdain for India is so visible that no Indian visitor here can fail to notice it. Every year, hundreds of people die in road accidents in Nepal, but when an Indian bus hit a pedestrian on a highway a few months ago, irate locals overturned the bus right into the River Trisuli. The police watched. Last week, a group of leftist students in Kakarvitta went for some wild adventure to Mechi Bridge where they beat up a few poor Indians. On their way back, they wanted some more fun and excitement, so they vandalised vehicles with Indian number plates. And we still want Indian tourists to visit Nepal.
"Festival of lights," says the tourism board, and hopes to lure Indians with that promise. To a hapless Indian tourist, the imagery is painfully evocative of the tyres that burnt on every street corner during the communal riots over what Hrithik Roshan hadn't said in December. Come to think of it, the problem of Nepali tourism isn't that Indians aren't coming, the real problem is that deep down we do not seem to want them. And unless we want them in right earnest, no amount of advertising is going to draw Indians to us. As things stand, perhaps it's better to place our hopes on the possibility of Chinese tourists willing to use their outbound facility to visit Nepal.
It's not just tourism, if we continue to love to hate our neighbours from the `south, there is no way that we can benefit from the market of a prosperous Indian middle-class for the export of our manufactured goods. Why would any Indian investor in his right mind consider bringing his capital to a country where his mere presence is barely tolerated, if not openly resented? He would do so only in those sectors where profit margins are fat enough to offset the social risks involved. That rules out any productive investment with a long gestation period. Consequently, most Indian investments that do come to Nepal are in the fly-by-night category, further fuelling resentment against Indians and their capital.
The troubles of Nepali tourism are all of our own making. The sooner we take a pragmatic decision to overcome our xenophobia and social schizophrenia the better it will be for us and our country's economy. Instead of launching a media blitz in India, maybe the Nepal Tourism Board needed an awareness campaign in Nepal first. After all, people on both sides of the India-Nepal border have such strong social ties that even the mighty propaganda machine of South Block has not been able to make visible dents in that. And let's not request "concerned authorities" to take "appropriate actions" to address the "grievances" of Indians. When the image of the country is at stake, all of us are concerned authorities, and each one of us has to do her bit to save Nepal's tourism from jingoism and foolish bravado.