10-16 July 2015 #766

Fixing what's broken

Nepal’s tourism was in crisis long before the earthquake struck

Bikram Rai

‘Build Back Better’ has become a mantra for post-earthquake rehabilitation in Nepal. As a motto it strives for an ideal outcome: the reconstruction of roads, schools, homes, government buildings, hospitals, utilities should not just be physical rebuilding, but restructuring each of these sectors from the ground up.

Nepal was a disaster zone long before the earthquakes struck. Education was in shambles because despite enrolment numbers being up, quality remained dismal. The health arena was either over-commercialised or under-served, putting basic medical care out of reach of most of the population. Kathmandu’s haphazard urbanisation and unsafe buildings made it a ticking timebomb, and it was not defused by the 7.8 quake on 25 April.

The root reasons for all these problems have been poor governance, political unwillingness and a disturbing lack of accountability on the part of elected officials. The earthquake, therefore, has given us the chance for a paradigm shift not just in the 15 affected districts, but in the rest of the country as well. And the constitution offers the mechanism to make politics more just and equitable.

Much has already been said in this space about maximising job-creation during the reconstruction process, and the National Planning Commission has taken the lead in ensuring that this happens. This would be the start of a longterm process of reversing the outflow of desperate young men and women to work overseas in appalling conditions.

The other mainstay of Nepal’s economy is tourism, and this has taken a direct hit from the earthquake. Saturation coverage in the international media of the immediate aftermath has spread the perception that Nepal is completely destroyed. The fact that many tourist spots like Pokhara, Chitwan, Lumbini, Muktinath or Mustang are not affected is not widely known.

In addition, alarmist travel advisories by some governments have frightened off potential visitors. Insurance companies take their cue from these blanket notices and the high premium is further deterrence.

Happily, as we write this, the United States, UK, and New Zealand have relaxed their advisories and there are indications they will be revised further as independent assessments of the Everest and Annapurna trekking trails and Kathmandu’s heritage sites become available.

Nepal’s tourism was also in crisis long before the earthquake. Visitor numbers were stagnant, spending per tourist was down, average duration of stay was getting shorter, repeat visitors were getting rarer.

It isn’t hard to figure out why: the quality of the product was going down with the chaos at the airport, the visa lines and the squalour of Kathmandu. The Annapurna Circuit and other trekking areas were marred by new highways. Chitwan suffered a 70 per cent drop in visitors after lodges were relocated and Sauraha became more and more unpleasant. There were concerns of safety in domestic air travel after a series of crashes. 

Air fare was another factor: it cost more for a tourist to fly from Kathmandu to Rara than to fly to Europe. Helicopter rescue in Nepal is as expensive as in the United States, and is the highest in the world. Then there were the high profile disasters like the Everest avalanche last year followed by government bungling on permits, the tragic loss of lives in the Annapurna blizzard raised questions of the lack of early warning and shelters along the trail.

The ‘Turning Point in Tourism: Role of International and National Tour Operators’ conference organised by the group, Samarth, last week drew attention to these intrinsic factors already affecting Nepal’s tourism before the earthquake. Robin Boustead of the Great Himalayan Trail Alliance said: “Nepal has fantastic mountains to climb, but it is becoming a much harder place to climb them in.”

Visitor numbers to Nepal have gone down in the past. It plummeted by 40 per cent after the 2001 royal palace massacre, went down by 80 per cent during the 2003 Gulf War, and shrank to a third of normal during the Maoist conflict. But in all these cases, arrival numbers revived in a few months. This time, even the most optimistic scenario predicts a 70 per cent drop in the autumn season, and a 40 per cent drop in bookings for the spring. It will take longer to bounce back this time.

The Samarth conference drew up a checklist of things to be done to revive tourism revenue:

  • Set up a verifiable third party online knowledge base with up-to-date information on the safety status of trekking trails

  • Relaunch the Nepal brand in target markets, especially India and China

  • Clean up the airport, streamline visas, make it easy for visitors

  • Don’t reduce prices, improve safety and quality of services

Read also:

Fixing tourism, Karma Gurung

Advisory on advisories, Backside

Tourism is down, but not out, Om Astha Rai

Rebuilding ourselves, Editorial

An opportunity for all: Nepal is open to visitors

Where have all the tourists gone?