With the government resuming issuing on-arrival visas to foreign nationals with the Covid-19 situation slowly normalizing in the country, many hope that Nepal’s tourism industry, which suffered the worst setback in years, will also begin to revive. But what actually is the state of the tourism industry at the moment? How did the tourism businesses suffer and what are the prospects? Nepal Live Today spoke to Dr Dhananjaya Regmi, the Chief Executive Officer, of the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB).
How badly did the pandemic affect our tourism sector? How can we revive it?
The disasters such as pandemics affect the tourism industry in two ways. First, if the tourists don’t come, workers and businessmen will be completely unemployed. They will lose their source of income. But there are others who can earn their living from other jobs even if the tourists don’t come. It affects different groups of people differently. Thus this notion that the tourism industry has met with the catastrophe is wrong. The thing is people who are totally dependent on the tourism business, owners and workers are in much more difficult situations. For example, those who ran hotels on rent and trekking guides who used to have seasonal earnings have been badly affected. But we have no exact data of such people.
The pandemic has taught us a big lesson on the need for maintaining data. Our system of keeping data and record is weak. We need to strengthen it. ID cards should be distributed to every worker associated with the tourism sector identifying whether s/he is a full-time or part-time worker.
We have a biased view of Indian tourists. We tend to think they don’t spend much.
Annual investment in the tourism service sector is Rs 150 billion, out of which 75 billion is invested through the banking channel. Cash-in-hand transactions have no record but cover a significant portion. I believe Nepal records a business of Rs 150 billion from investments in the tourism sector. Thus we need to understand that the tourism industry accounts for a significant portion of Nepal’s economy. Only banking transactions are calculated in GDP. So the real contribution of the tourism industry in GDP is more than what is seen. Official data shows around 3,00,000 work in the industry. But many more people are associated with the tourism sector, which our official data do not cover.
There do not seem to be any credible plans to revive the industry at the moment. What is the plan to revive tourism post-pandemic?
For recovery and revival, we have acknowledged the importance of internal tourists this time. We need to motivate and urge domestic tourists to visit different places in Nepal. Promoting internal tourism will be a sustainable and better alternative for revival. Nepal should also focus on greenery and environmental protection, by applying measures such as replacing traditional vehicles with electric ones. Other countries have focused on nature-based tourism. Nepal should do the same.
Our focus now is on ensuring the survival of the tourism industry. For that we are working for the promotion of domestic tourism. In addition, we have to think of new concepts. Incentivizing and involving the private sector will be a good move to revive the industry. As we have an open border with India, India can be a booster for our tourism industry. But our ministers and leaders do not think of India as the source of sustainable tourism. They look up to the UK, the US and other Western countries.
But we need high-end tourists if we have to revive our tourism industry and they usually come from the West.
That’s a wrong notion. Even the tourists from neighboring India spend as much as the Western tourists. Facts speak for themselves. We conducted a survey and the finding was that they spend INR 17000 during their average stay of 4.7 days in Nepal, which means they spend $46 per day on average. Indian tourists spend not less than their European or American counterparts.
We have a biased view of Indian tourists. We tend to think they don’t spend much. High-end tourists come to India as well. The number of Indian youth trekkers is surging. We have not promoted our tourism in India. We need to do that.
Some tourism businesses are on the verge of collapse. What should be done to save them?
The government allocated funds to provide relief to the businesses in distress but there is no concrete data of how many are actually suffering, how many tourism-associated people are unemployed, and what is the numerical degree of the loss.
You require collateral to obtain loans from banks. How can the businesses run by renting others’ properties, and those who have become bankrupt because of the pandemic furnish the collateral? Such businesses are largely in trouble. We had suggested checking the banking transaction and tax history of the past two to three years to determine how much loss they incurred. But many businessmen try to elude tax by showing less income. And they suffer during the times like these.
When foreign investors are willing to invest in Nepal, they won’t get sufficient support. We have failed to secure foreign investments in the tourism sector.
To overcome these problems, we need to make them aware of the advantages of paying taxes. We need to teach them that paying tax will do no harm and the government will provide help during the crisis by analyzing their tax payment history.
We have very few tourist destinations like Pokhara and Chitwan to hold high-end tourism. Why have not we been able to develop other destinations?
We can develop other destinations as well but we need to encourage foreign investment in this sector. When a foreign investor is willing to invest in Nepal, they won’t get sufficient support. We have failed to secure foreign investments in the tourism sector.
Unplanned and unmanaged construction and development projects destroy the touristic beauty. Making roads in the villages and the hills can destroy a trekking route. Unplanned construction destroys the environment and triggers natural disasters. This also has downgraded the image of Nepal as a tourist destination. This needs to be corrected.
At times we also need to set a limit on mountain climbing. For example, if everyone tries to climb only Mount Everest, other mountains will be in the shadows. If we limit the climbers to Mt Everest, tourists will start exploring other mountains. Or we can make a rule like whoever has climbed three other mountains will be given topmost priority in climbing Mount Everest.
The tourists first arrive in Kathmandu. But Kathmandu itself is full of dust and pollution. Don’t you think we need to begin by cleaning up Kathmandu?
I agree that Kathmandu is not clean. But you should also note the fact that Kathmandu is no dustier and polluted like in the past. Electric vehicles should be promoted more. The government and Nepal Electricity Authority have started to discuss this matter at a policy level. Let’s hope something good will come out it.
What is the significance of the 13 diplomats’ visit to Pokhara a few days ago? Will it attract foreign tourists to Nepal?
First of all, we demanded a tourist-friendly protocol with the government for a long time, and the protocol was made. Then they made 10 days’ quarantine protocol, which discouraged many tourists from coming to Nepal. Thankfully, this has been removed for the vaccinated tourists. ‘On arrival’ visa has also resumed. So we can hope that more foreign tourists will come to Nepal now.
The diplomats’ visit to Pokhara is of high significance for Nepal’s tourism revival. We organized that visit to show them that we have now opened tourism. We provided the information and messages that the people engaged in the tourism industry are vaccinated. We tried to send positive messages to the world. The vaccination campaign has sent a positive message about Nepal to the world. Now tourists coming to Nepal will feel safer.
The diplomats’ visit to Pokhara is of high significance for Nepal’s tourism revival. We organized that visit to show them that we have now opened tourism.
We have requested the government to connect Indian states such as Gujarat, Dehradun and Hyderabad with flights. We are planning to focus on high-end tourists from the Middle East for Pokhara. Now, the flight between Kathmandu and Colombo has started. This will bring more tourists from there. We have now opened Nepal for tourism. We invite tourists from all over the world to come and explore the beauty of this Himalayan nation.
We still lag behind in building tourism infrastructure. Why have we not paid much attention to this?
The budget allocated for the Tourism Ministry is around 27 billion rupees. But only a small portion of this amount is used to build infrastructure which is also, at times, held hostage by the vested interests of the politicians. As a result, we have unnecessary construction of view towers at the top of the hills in several places. Hills are view towers naturally. I wonder why we need to create view towers there. Political leadership needs to understand that without the right infrastructure, we won’t be able to make visiting tourists stay longer in Nepal.