It all started during the war, when Nepal was perceived to be unsafe for inbound tourists. So Nepalis who could afford it started going out of the country, especially in winter.
In the past decade, the number of Nepalis going to Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore or India for leisure and shopping has increased ten fold, according to travel agents. Nepal is now sending more tourists to Thailand and Malaysia than it receives from these countries.
A more cosmopolitan and savvy young generation, and a burgeoning middle class with disposable income, have been the push factors. "Liberalisation in the foreign exchange regime, simplified visa procedures and easy availability of tour packages have boosted foreign travel," says Subodh Rana of Malla Travels and Treks.
Bhola Bikram Thapa of President Group sends more than 1000 Nepali tourists out every month. He offers package tours to Asian as well as European countries to meet the diversified choices of Nepali tourists. "The dramatic increase of outbound tourism is affordable price. A Bangkok tour is cheaper than India," he says. Thapa is now eyeing Mauritius as the next big destination for Nepalis.
Supriya Shakya, tour manager of Marco Polo Travels, says Nepalis are travelling at all times of the year. There is no season, although winter sees heavier bookings. "Shopping, beaches, night life and parks, you name it and Nepalis are interested," she says.
Sensing the outbound tourism potential in Nepal, several countries are trying to tap the market by offering budget tour packages and seasonal discounts. Surprisingly, even faraway Egypt is trying woo Nepalis. "Cairo is an open museum of history," says Shakya, who is selling an eight-night package including a Nile cruise.
Nepalis from diverse walks of life have taken to tourism as the opportunities have expanded. Ravin Man Bajracharya, chief operating officer at Lalit Mandap, says his company started out with pilgrim tourism to Thailand. Starting with just 40 pilgrims a year, Lalit Mandap now takes more than 1000 Nepali pilgrims and tourists to Thailand every year. "Our role is to make it easier for people to travel to places they have never been to," he explains. Honeymooners and conference tourists are also important segments of Nepal's outbound tourism, but Bishnu Prasai of Natraj Travels and Tours says one should not discount government officials, who often take a few days off when they go abroad for professional reasons. Of late, however, greater public scrutiny of the misuse of state money has put a damper on this form of tourism.
Milhika Dhakhwa of Zenith Experiences Travel Services is clear about why outbound tourism has emerged to complement inbound tourism. When the latter dried up during the conflict, the former bloomed. "We thought, if they're not coming here, we'll go there," she recalls. Such a transition, of course, may not be enough to make up the numbers. Deepak Tuladhar of Yeti Travels used to bring in 43,000 tourists in 1996, now it has gone down to 6000. "India and China have fast expanded overseas tourism but we have not been able to cash in this opportunity," says Tuladhar.
Perhaps Nepal Tourism Year 2011 will help redress the balance. Bhola Thapa of President Group is on the National Executive Committee, and is optimistic Nepal will be able to attract a million tourists. But it won't be easy. "Things will streamline in five to ten years," he says, "but we will have to do it the hard way. We don't have much time."