Everything was looking up for Nepal's tourism. October bookings looked healthy, airlines were filling up again and adding frequency, trekking agencies were smiling. All that changed last week. After the New York and Washington bombings, Nepal's tourism outlook is bleaker than ever.
Despite the IC814 hijack and its aftermath, hotel strikes, the Hrithik Roshan riots, the Maoist insurgency and the royal massacre, surprisingly tourists were still coming to Nepal, and numbers were picking up. Now it looks like another below-average autumn season.
"We'll have to wait and see how things unfold," says Pradeep Raj Pandey of the Nepal Tourism Board. "This might affect regional tourism, but we have been one of the few places where there have been no problems for Americans." One in ten tourists to Nepal is American.
The entire focus of the US military response to the terrorist attacks last week is now centred on South Asia with intense coverage in international media of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The subcontinent is now seen as a possible war zone, and people are keeping out. There have been massive cancellations of trekking groups from Germany and Britain.
"People are just not travelling," says one exasperated trekking agency official in Kathmandu. "Every fax, every email has bad news." Many European travellers who were flying Gulf-based airlines have cancelled bookings, and even tourists coming from the east (Australians and Japanese) are panicking. If it is this bad before the expected US response gets underway, a full-scale multinational offensive on Afghanistan would kill the rest of the season. Pandey is keeping his fingers crossed: "If there is a major incident in the region in the next few weeks we may lose what looks like a fairly good year-end."
It is not just Nepal that is affected, tourism to and from the United States is worst hit. Travel trade officials say India has seen a 70 percent drop in arrivals since the bombings and even Thailand is expecting a 15 percent downturn in arrivals this season-most non-stop flights from Europe to southeast Asia overfly Afghanistan and the Gulf.
Narendra Bajracharya, general secretary of the Hotel Association of Nepal (HAN) is still optimistic that if the crisis blows over quickly, some tourists may uncancel. "We could look at averaging 50-60 percent hotel occupancy, if not the 70-80 percent we've had in the best of times," he says bravely.
October-December has traditionally been the peak season when hotels are booked to capacity-some with 100 percent occupancy for weeks at a stretch. Tourists move on to Pokhara or Chitwan or for long treks in the mountains, helping disperse the income tourism brings. "After two bad years, we were really looking forward to a good season to recoup our losses," Bajracharya told us. Despite dismal arrivals last year, tourism still brought Rs 11.8 billion ($167 million) into Nepal. Only 463,646 tourists came in 2000, about six percent less than 1999.
The NTB and other hoteliers are pinning their hopes on Indian traffic during the mid-October festival season. "There has to be an immediate, vigorous promotion campaign in India," says Bachan Gyawali of Four Seasons Travel. "Indians may actually find Nepal a good place to get away from it all."
But it will not work unless the passport requirement on Indians travelling to Nepal by air is lifted, a rule enforced after the December 1999 hijack of IC814. "Half the Indian tourists who want to come here cannot because they don't have passports or election cards," says Romesh Saigal, an Indian travel entrepreneur. Officials from both countries are trying to get the rule lifted, but without result. No one could tell us where the obstacle is. Nepal's main attraction for Indian tourists aside from the Hindu temples, mountains and shopping was that they could get here without passport and visa hassles.
Even before the panic about US retaliation in Afghanistan, the north Indian circuit, which Nepal traditionally depended on for group tourists, was seeing a dramatic downturn. Tourists, especially Americans, were just not doing the Jaipur-Delhi-Agra-Banaras-Kathmandu intinerary in the numbers they used to. This had affected Nepal, but luckily in recent years Nepal had emerged as a hub in its own right for tourists who flew into Kathmandu and then out to Tibet or India from here.