Any other year this would be peak tourist season in Pokhara, and the lakeside town would be teeming with trekkers, or those just back from paragliding, ultra-light flights, rafting or ziplining. There would have been Indian pilgrims on their way to Muktinath, or Chinese honeymooners boating on Phewa lake.
Today, Pokhara is eerily empty. Every shop, restaurant, and hotel is deserted. A fancy coffee shop that opened last year that also sells locally made t-shirts hasn’t had a customer in a week. A popular bar frequented largely by international tourists now only sees local visitors. Taxi-drivers and boatmen while their time gambling on the sidewalk.
“It was as if the earthquake swept away all the tourists,” said one restaurant owner among many who have sent their staff on unpaid leave. Pokhara serves as the gateway to treks in the Annapurnas, and it is also a favourite weekend getaway for Kathmandu residents.
International media coverage of the quake made it sound like the whole of Nepal was destroyed, and images of collapsed buildings and old heritage sites in Kathmandu made it to the front pages. Media failed to report that 80 per cent of Kathmandu’s houses were still intact, the airport was open, and that only 14 of Nepal’s 75 districts were affected.
German tourist Mark Kessler (pic) who was on the Annapurna Circuit trek when the earthquake struck says he was surprised to be asked by family and friends in Germany if there were any buildings left in Nepal.
“All they had seen on the news were pictures of damaged houses and ruins,” said Kessler, who decided to stay back and is headed to Lumbini next. “I told them the part of Nepal I was in hasn’t been affected much. My stay has been great and the people have been extremely nice. I would love to come back with my mother next year.”
Kessler plans to write about his Nepal experience to encourage people to visit the country. “It would be a pity if the money that they would have spent in this country went elsewhere,” he said. But Kessler is an exception, he was one of a handful of tourists we met in Pokhara this week.
All photos: Bikram Rai
Arrivals in Pokhara has dropped by almost 95 per cent and most hotels have only 2 per cent occupancy rate. “We had 100 per cent pre-booking for May and June, all of which got cancelled within a week of the quake,” said Krishna Prasad Pandey of Hotel Landmark.
Temple Tree, a boutique hotel located at Lakeside would normally have been fully booked this time of year. Only 30 per cent of its rooms were occupied this week, mainly by Nepali guests.
For Hom Budathoki at Mike’s Breakfast, all this brings back memories of the conflict years. “But even during the war, Pokhara was never this empty,” he said. “the government and the NTB should be out there promoting Nepal, and telling the world that we are back in business.”
This week the Western Hotel Association of Nepal announced huge discounts on hotels, restaurants, and trekking packages in Pokhara. Room tariff is down by 50 per cent, 20 per cent discount on restaurants, 30 per cent on trekking packages, 20 per cent on bus fare, 20 per cent on trekking gears and adventure sports. The offer is valid until 30 September.
Said Pandey: “Our message is, Pokhara is beautiful, it wasn’t affected by the earthquake and now is the time to visit.”
Tourism is down, but not out, Om Astha Rai