Pokhara Ė Nepal Tourism Year 2011 was launched with much fanfare and people seemed happy to see this tourist city bustling with activity. The city has transformed quite a bit in the past decade, with 'bulldozer and excavator terrorism' razing hills to create flat land for sale. There is less observed greenery and as the Beed has earlier, Pokhara is aping the wrong model: Kathmandu.
For tourism to really make sense, we need to see not only physical transformation of places, but also the transformation of mindsets. After two days, one runs out of eating options as the 'tomato puree' culture predominates the restaurant industry here. There have to be more restaurants that provide good food at fair prices. Maybe it's time for the specialty restaurants in Kathmandu to expand.
It was also surprising to see most of the restaurants rejecting credit cards. With Nepalis increasingly using plastic money, we can't hope to be a tourist destination if we only accept cash deals. Further, the banks have to ensure that ATMs dispense money on demand if we are to rely on cash. Similarly, Internet connections are not meant for business hotels alone. The Internet is akin to mobile phones in the early days of the technology: a necessary tool for travellers to stay connected with the wider world. Having sloppy Internet connections or charging a bomb for connectivity is not tourist friendly.
Of course, the most important transformation we need to see is in service delivery. Since the tourism slump of the conflict years, despite a recovery, it seems we have forgotten how to service full restaurants or hotels. Our politicians, who run the unions and like to impose the philosophy of a state-owned seller's market, would probably like to see employees in private enterprises work like those in government monopolies. Like the staff at Nepal Electricity Authority or Nepal Airlines, employees at some tourist establishments seem to think they are gods and we, the customers, are at their mercy.
We need to understand that workers are paid to provide good service. Productivity and wages need to be linked. In some places in Pokhara, we actually felt we were a big burden imposed on employees who would rather sit around twiddling their thumbs. There are of course exceptions. One need only observe the staff at the highly successful Busy Bee Cafť to wonder why other restaurants aren't the same.
But Pokhara must also make more of its incredible natural beauty. Simply dumping tourists there is not enough. Planning is necessary to determine how the lake can be used for more than just rowboat rides. How about a pathway around the lake for walks? The challenge is to find more options to keep visitors busy.
What better time than now to think about destination overhaul? It's not more construction that we need, it is sprucing up the constructions we have and upgrading our soft skills. Why not more training programs, more awareness programs and of course, a paradigm shift on how we think about service and service delivery?