Nepali Times
"The east has potential"

Nepali Times: Biratnagar is not thought of as a touristy destination. What made you start your hotel management school here?

Roshan Bahadur Thapa: Agreed that Biratnagar is not a tourist destination. However, for infrastructure and proximity to India, it is by far the best place in Eastern Nepal. Biratnagar is also a hub of Eastern Nepal and is still a growing industrial town with immense business potential. It is the gateway to Nepal if one would consider Indian states of Bihar and West Bengal as potential tourism generating states. Darjeeling and Gangtok are always packed during the summer season, there is no reason why Ilam and Bhedetar couldn't have similar traffic.

The South Asian School of Tourism and Hotel Management (SASTHM) is an initiative to decentralise and regionalise the hospitality industry and tourism education. Everything is highly concentrated within Kathmandu valley. I wanted to make sure that I have a school, which would produce skilled workforce for tourism industry right here thus eliminating the problems of importing skilled workforce from Kathmandu. In fact our graduates are now working in hotels in eastern Nepal, Kathmandu and even Indian hotels are recruiting here. We started with three students who enrolled for Bachelors of Hotel Management course in 2004. Right now we have more than 60 students in various semesters. We have a fully operational 28 room hotel with several banquet facilities (Ratna Hotel) as well. In Kathmandu the Radission, Annapurna and Soaltee Crowne Plaza are supporting us with internships.

What constraints do you face in operating the school on a day- to-day basis?
This was not going to be an easy job. I was prepared for it before I came to Biratnagar in 2003. The biggest problem we face is highly centralised Kathmandu. In Biratnagar, we don't have that privilege of media attention or coverage. Getting teachers was the biggest hurdle in the beginning. Instructors from Kathmandu were reluctant to come to Biratnagar. But not anymore.

What are some of the underdeveloped tourist attractions in eastern Nepal?
Our tourism is focussed on the so-called "the golden triangle" of Kathmandu, Chitwan and Pokhara. Eastern Nepal has a lot to offer. Basantapur, Tin Jure, Milke Danda have great eco-tourism potential in the rhododendron season. Hile could easily outsell Darjeeling as a hill station with views not just of Kangchenjunga but Makalu and Everest as well. And it is all within four hours drive from Jogbani which is scorching hot in the summer.

How can an entrepreneur help make Eastern Nepal a profitable tourism destination?
If Nagarkot and Dhulikhel can be considered an attractive destination, why not the hills of Eastern Nepal? If nearby Darjeeling and Sikkim can attract thousands of Indian tourists, why not here? Tourism is a multi-faceted industry which has a huge potential of multiplier effect on jobs and economic growth besides helping conservation. Investing in tourism in Eastern Region is never a bad idea.

But what are the constraints?
First of all, tourism is at a very primitive stage in Eastern Nepal. Even before commercial promotion, there is an urgent need to develop infrastructure: accessibility, amenities, activities and attraction management. It is not too late to prepare a tourism masterplan for Hile and Ilam right away. Businesses also look at returns on investment, but tourism is a supply induced demand kind of investment.

What is the role of the government?
It can consider long-term land lease, subsidies on construction material or tax exemption. The government should arrange for soft bank loan, ease the registration process and remove bureaucratic hurdles. A PPP concept can be applied here, and the government could designate certain areas 'Restricted to Tourism Development' with the understanding of local communities for sustainable growth.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)