The slogan for Nepal Tourism Year 2011 is 'together for tourism'. On the first promotional event on 26 February at Tundikhel, the government, political parties, private partners and professionals will make a public commitment to support the campaign.
Nepal Tourism Year (NTY) 2011 aims to bring in at least one million tourists by 2011 and spread the benefits of tourism to the people at large. It was announced by the Maoist-led government in 2008 as part of its economic policy to achieve double-digit economic growth. Considering that Visit Nepal Year 1998's aim of 500,000 tourists was realised only in 2007, and arrivals have remained steady since, this is a tall order.
"NTY 2011 will be a litmus test to determine what should be done to develop the Nepali tourism industry," says Aditya Baral, director of the Nepal Tourism Board.
Baral says the current political deadlock has really not affected tourism though the Maoists' recent anti-India movement has impacted on Indian arrivals which make up 20 per cent of total visitors.
Stefan Shrestha of Pokhara-based Avia Club Nepal, is grounded yet optimistic. "There will definitely be an increase in tourist arrivals even if we don't meet the target of one million by 2011," he says.
But there are other numbers to consider as well. Though tourist arrivals are up year by year, Nepal's foreign exchange earnings from tourism have never crossed the US$350 million threshold.
The arrival of the first batch of hippies in the early 1970s, which put Nepal on the map, was also the beginning of tourism in the country. "Nepal never planned, it just happened and we went with the flow," says Yogendra Sakya of the Program Execution Committee, NTY 2011.
Nepal hasn't really explored high-end tourism, despite the activities available here: ultralight aircraft, bungee jumps, mountain flights, rafting, and mountaineering. Adventure tourists tend to stay longer and about 200 mountaineering expeditions visit Nepal annually. But an average visitor to Nepal spends 11 days here, spending just $73 per day.
Yogendra Sakya maintains that Nepal should have planned for upmarket clients. Stefan Shrestha advocates "promoting both quantity and quality tourism simultaneously, as we do not have the facilities and activities to cater for upmarket tourism."
If high-end tourism were developed, Nepal could earn as much revenue from the current number of tourists as one million tourists would bring in. But if that target is to be reached at some point, Nepal has a long to-do list.
It could start with connectivity. The government has announced visa fee waivers for tourists visiting Nepal for the second time, and is working on online visa applications. But how tourists actually get to Nepal is moot.
Seventy per cent of visitors to Nepal enter by air. Currently, 25 international airlines operate in Nepal and three more will start operations by the end of this year. But they are all second-echelon Asian airlines catering primarily to migrant workers. After Lufthansa stopped flights to Kathmandu in 1995, for instance, German tourists fell from 44,530 in 1994 to 19,123 last year.
With Nepal Airlines continuing woes, Nepal remains less connected than its neighbours. "We have to improve land route services, and introduce homestay to complement tourist hotels," says Sakya, "if we try, something will happen but if we don't even try, nothing will happen."
Pink for Dink
CA member and founder of Blue Diamond Society Sunil Babu Pant is also the organiser of the first LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) travel symposium in Asia. Excerpts of interview:
Pant: We officially want to welcome gay and lesbian visitors, who think Nepal is conservative. This is a huge opportunity for Nepal because no one has tapped this market.
Who will be participating?
There will be travel companies from US, Europe, Thailand and Japan. Travel businesses over there focus on this market because they spend twice as much as other travellers. The term DINK stands for Double Income No Kids. They are luxury travellers, they stay in good hotels and spend a lot of money. It's a very lucrative market for Nepal because we have virtually no competition from our neighbours.
You have also established a travel agency, Pink Mountain Travel and Tours.
It's a travel agency like others. We are also focused on adventure travel. One difference is that we will have guides who will also explain historical sites from the LGBT angle.
How have local businesses responded?
The response has been overwhelming. Several have asked me to endorse their travel agencies and hotels. I would be more than happy to. I just have to make sure they are gay friendly.
You invited the Prince of Jaipur Manavendra Singh, who has recently announced that he is gay, to have his wedding in Nepal.
He is coming for a visit this year. He is the chief guest in the symposium. He recently announced that he is going to marry his long-term partner. We are thinking of taking him to Sauraha and decorating elephants in royal style. There are several couples who have inquired about getting married in Everest Base Camp. Why not? It's good for our economy.
License to trek
On the eve of Nepal Tourism Year 2011, the decision to raise fees for trekking from Rs100 to $10 shows we want to squeeze tourists for every paisa we can.
Nepal Tourism Board has been authorised to issue a Trekkers Information Management System card for $10. Aditya Baral, director at NTB, claims the estimated Rs100 million collected from tourists will be used for the development and promotion of new trekking destinations, infrastructure and rescue operations.
The Trekking Agencies' Association of Nepal will buy the cards at $10 apiece from NTB and distribute it to its 700 members. But individual tourists will have to purchase the card directly from NTB for $20.
Kul Bahadur Gurung, executive member of TAAN, is worried the fee is too high. "This is not a trekking permit," he says. "And there shouldn't be a trekking permit in the future, either."
Also truly Asia?
Speaking at the inaugural function of the PATA Adventure Travel and Responsible Tourism Conference in Kathmandu recently, the chairman of Malaysia Tourism Victor Wee shared the success of his country's visitor promotion campaign.
When the Asian economic crisis of 1998 caused the economy to contract by 7.4 per cent and tourism to fall, the Malaysia Truly Asia campaign was launched. Malaysia's visitor arrivals quadrupled to 22 million in ten years. Today, Malaysia is the 11th largest tourism destination in the world and rakes in $15 billion a year.
Wee had the following tips for Visit Nepal 2011:
* Increase connectivity
* Improve tourism infrastructure, cleanliness and hygiene
* Leverage Lumbini as a Spiritual Tourism hub with direct flights
* Improve security and political stability?
* Proactive and coherent government policy
* Human resource development and providing value to customers
* Dynamic and innovative marketing