So what if the rest of the world isn't coming to Nepal? Pokhara's tourist trade has decided to drum up domestic business by enticing Nepalis to visit Nepal. The newly-launched "Jaun Hai Pokhara" promotes Pokhara as an adventure tourist destination. And Pokhara is not just selling its stupendous scenery: it is also promoting the lake-side town as a health and education destination.
"Pokhara has clean air, good water and a delightful climate. Many visitors come to Pokhara and feel better immediately," says Biplab Paudel of the Regional Hotel Association of Nepal. Pokhara is turning out to be an education and health centre in its own right with the Manipal Hospital, an eye hospital, a leprosy hospital, and good private hospitals.
Quality education is available at the various science, engineering and hotel management campuses. In addition to being a haven where Kathmanduites can escape the bustle of their polluted capital, Pokhara now has well equipped health and education facilities for all Nepalis. Pokhara is slightly less than 1,000m above sea level, giving it a tropical climate, but is much closer to the mountains than Kathmandu is.
December was a good month for Pokhara. Promotion efforts for the festival reached the eastern towns of Birgunj, Biratnagar, Dharan, Kakarvitta, and Janakpur. Pokhara's promoters are also going further afield to lure Indian Nepalis from Darjeeling, Siliguri and Sikkim.
In fact, the only silver lining in Pokhara has been that Indian arrivals showed a slight upturn compared to last year.
The bigger picture, however, remains stark. Charlie Gaillart operates the only rental shop specialising in kayaks.
e has already closed his trekking shop and now considers downsizing Ganesh Kayak Shop. In a last ditch effort, Dhaka Ram Sharma converted his bookshop of five years into Shangri-La Music Shop. He manages on Rs 4,000 in sales, but how long will he survive? The drone in Bharat Malla's voice at Seven Peaks Tours and Travels as he chants, "Business is not good," reflects the general gloom and doom.
"Nobody can tell what next week will bring," says Ailsa Colston of the cosy fourteen-room Hotel Nirvana.
Prospects for the upscale market are equally bleak. At the Shangri-la Village, resident manager Vijay Subba bemoans a 70 percent cancellation from the Japanese market and a whopping 90 percent cancellations by Americans. "Nepal has been given a second chance by the international market. If the situation remains bad, we could vanish from the international itinerary," Subba fears.
Two years ago, Bistro Caroline opened at the Lakeside with its affordable but classy eatery. Bilal Joo hoped the business of his dreams would set a modest standard: "Pokhara just needed a place like this. There is nothing else like it here. That's why it can work." But to the lonely traveller sipping Arabica coffee at the edge of the handsomely cultivated garden, it is apparent that the Bistro is struggling to sustain itself.
The numbers say it all: Nepal's tourism is down 27 percent from last year. "It would be unwise to compare this past year with the year before it," cautions Robin Marston, executive director of Fulbari Express Travel and Tours. But the arrival figures for 2002 are 50 percent down on even 2000 figures.
Pokhara is an adventure tourist destination with not just trekking but also ultra-light flying, paragliding, rafting and maybe soon hot-air balooning. Avia Club Nepal is in its seventh year of operating ultralights from Pokhara airport, and sales manager Deepti Gurung says there has been a big spurt in Nepalis who want to be airborne in the open-canopy crafts for a one-hour sightseeing flight. Avia Club is offering a special discount for Nepalis this year and is eager to welcome Kathmandu's young-at-heart for a different kind of thrill.
Pokhara's topography and consistent weather are excellent for producing thermals harnessed by the experts of Sun Rise Paragliding. "We have been fortunate," says Adam Hill, co-owner of the Nepali-British venture. "There has been a massive drop in tourists in Pokhara but this year has been our best year." In December Sun Rise saw more Nepalis and Indians. "It is excellent. We want more Nepalis to come and fly."