Nepali Times
Tourism turnaround?


Indian tourists are returning in droves, bookings for September and October are looking good, and flights in and out of Kathmandu are full.

But Nepal's travel traders have been let down so badly so often that they aren't jumping with joy yet. In fact, they've all got their fingers crossed that the post-monsoon will mark an end to the years of downturn in arrivals.

Hoteliers, travel agencies and airlines have all learnt that in Nepal, Murphy's Law applies: anything that can go wrong will. Last year, just as the travel industry was gearing up for a turnaround, 12 Nepali hostages were killed in Iraq and riots hit Kathmandu on 1 September. There were mass cancellations. Although no tourists have been deliberately hurt by Maoist violence, news of the conflict and embassy advisories have kept western arrivals low.

"The bookings look good but the problem is that they are just bookings," says Ashok Pokhrel at the Nepal Association of Tour Operators. "The political developments in February wiped out all bookings overnight, remember?"

But the fact that international tour operators have started selling Nepal again seems to reflect a renewed confidence in the destination. Nandini Thapa at the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) says, "The last few months have seen an improvement, international tour operators have come to terms with the situation in Nepal. We are hopeful but realistic."

A number of factors seem to be working in Nepal's favour. Natural disasters, epidemics and a spate of terrorist attacks worldwide have, ironically, sent the message that nowhere is safe and at least in Nepal the violence is not random.

But more importantly, the new budget airlines flying from Nepal have brought airline prices down and this in turn has expanded the market. Prices to Indian destinations have dropped by more than half, pushing up Indian arrivals.

"Air accessibility is the major factor and competition has made Nepal a viable choice as it's cheaper now for Indians to visit Nepal compared to southeast Asian destinations," says the NTB's Thapa.

Subodh Rana at Marco Polo Travels agrees: "Tourism from the region is certainly looking better, flights by Air Nepal have added connections to Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur and with their partner airline they are also looking at connecting Beijing. These are very positive developments."

Air Nepal could not have come at a better time because Qatar Airways had pulled out its four-weekly Kuala Lumpur flights in June. "We can now revive tours and the Malaysian market looks good," says Rana. "Air Nepal has also broken the monopoly long held by Thai Airways and competitive fares will further benefit the destination."

However, long-haul markets, especially Europe and the US, don't look too promising. Since Holland's Martinair stopped seasonal flights to Amsterdam west-bound flights via the Gulf are going to be packed this autumn, travel agencies predict.

For its part the NTB is urging Kathmandu-based embassies to tone down their travel advisories and has launched a campaign to enlist Nepali missions abroad to get the word out that tourists have nothing to fear in Nepal. "Ambassadors and consulates are being briefed on how to refute misleading information and provide exact information on Nepal," says Thapa.

Despite this message, the insurgency and threat of violence still loom large. For now, just to prove a point, tourism entrepreneurs are telling the world that Nepal is as safe, or as vulnerable, as London or any other place in the world.

Tying up with Tibet
If the coming tourist season is looking good, it is in part because Nepal serves as a transit hub for travellers going to Tibet, Bhutan and other neighbouring destinations. "The total number of annual visitors to Tibet is officially around 800,000 of which around 500,000 are foreigners and it would be safe to say that at least 30,000 go via Nepal," says Ashok Pokharel of the Nepal Association of Travel Agents. "In fact, almost every tour or trek in Tibet involves a Nepali operator because we have the edge over the Tibetans in experience and professionalism."

In fact it is the Tibet traffic that kept Nepal afloat this monsoon season. But after September, Tibet traffic falls off and Nepal has to pull on its own.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)