Nepali Times
Economic Sense
Tourism deja vu



It has been a year since your weekly Beed wrote about tourism. Now that there are real tourists actually flying to Nepal again, not just the 'parachute consultants' and staff of permanent missions, the tourism industry folks are smiling. Hotels are reporting improved occupancy rates and one can't walk in Thamel anymore because of the traffic jams. However, we need to go back and talk about the industry like we used to talk about it 10 years ago.

In the early 90s, before adverse travel advisories and people dying became the norm, we spent a lot of time talking about bottlenecks in the tourism industry. Unfortunately, these not only remain but are now worse. We used to complain about the national airline, which is now reduced to one and a half aircraft: two planes but only three engines. And from 18 December, the fleet strength will be down to zero as both 757s are grounded.

We used to discuss the lack of seats available between India and Nepal. While Indian skies have opened in the last 10 years, we in Nepal are still stuck with our quotas. We used to write letters endlessly to newspaper editors complaining about the pathetic airport facilities. The situation has worsened, and perhaps if Nepal ever gets the magic half-million tourists a year, flying in and out of Kathmandu will be a worse experience than at any other South Asian airport.

The environment was a pet theme in those days, and proactive activism did even succeed in removing smoke-belching three-wheelers from the city streets and make Kathmandu one of the first cities in the world to switch to electric public transport. But the myopia of policy makers, coupled with the mediocrity of the private sector, relegated the experiment to a plethora of reports.

Rubbish production in those days, though a menace, was half what it is today. Now, with an increased valley population and a rise in per capita rubbish production, the situation is bound to get even worse. Discussions over privatising rubbish collection will begin where they left off 10 years ago. Tourists do not want to be greeted by garbage heaps. While we busily cleaned our houses for Tihar to attract the Goddess Laxmi, we forgot that perhaps the filth in the valley would keep her away.

City transportation was a major bottleneck then, and has now become worse. What sightseeing can tourists do if they are stuck in a traffic snarl-up? How do they feel about the self-styled donation collection agencies that now dot the highways?

The only silver lining to be seen is that the government finally decided to appoint veteran Prachanda Shrestha as CEO of the Nepal Tourism Board. His challenge is to make work an organisation that has demonstrated the highest levels of political wrangling. For him also, it is perhaps like putting the clock back 10 years, to a time when he and some energetic, passionate tourism entrepreneurs and professionals made the NTB happen.

The Beed has always maintained that for long-term sustainable tourism development in Nepal, we must allow foreign players to come in. Just as the hotel industry benefited from the transfer of technology and skills, so we need visionary global tourism players to make it happen. I hope I will not have to write a similar column 10 years from now.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)