Nepal had just announced the ‘Visit Nepal Year’ campaign 2020 in December 2020, with an ambitious goal of bringing in two million tourists to the country, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world. Nepal had then to stop the campaign. Since April 2020, when the first Covid-19 lockdown started and since the beginning of the pandemic, Nepal’s tourism sector has suffered the worst setback. The tourism sector is yet to emerge from the Covid shocks. Meanwhile, with the vaccination campaign kicking off and the government opening on-arrival visas for foreign nationals, there are some signs of revival of tourism, one of the mainstays of the Nepali economy. How optimistic can we be? Nepal Live Today talked to Khum Bahadur Subedi, President of Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN). Excerpts:
Tourism was the hardest hit sector by the Covid-19 pandemic. The government has opened up tourism recently. How have you analyzed the situation?
After the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, the overall tourism sector plunged to the lowest point possible for the last two years. A positive side for the trekking sector was that tourists were opting for trekking and hiking even during the pandemic. The flow of tourists at that time helped run some of the tourism businesses.
But for the tourism sector as a whole to revive, other sectors such as hotels, restaurants, airlines businesses, among others, need to revive. This will surely take time. Thus I would say that the tourism sector might not fully revive before 2024.
Why so? Why will it take such a long time?
That’s because big airlines are yet to revive from the shocks of the pandemic. Likewise, many airline companies are still closed.
Some big airline companies are not resuming flights until the situation completely normalizes. And the growth of the tourism sector is directly dependent on the airline sector. Thus it might be difficult for us in the tourism sector to get back on our feet before 2024. The decision of the government to allow vaccinated foreign nationals to come and visit Nepal is a welcome step. It has sent a positive message to the international community. But this alone will not help much.
Nepal has a lot of potential in developing new trekking trails. The government should take initiatives for this immediately.
Unvaccinated tourists have to get visas from the Embassy of Nepal in their respective countries. As Nepali embassies are present only in select few countries, those who want to come to Nepal from the countries where we do not have our embassies will face difficulties in getting visas.
What is the situation of trekking routes?
All the trekking routes are open. As hotels and restaurants are also opening slowly, we expect the flow of tourists will increase slowly in this autumn season.
Our famous trekking routes are Annapurna, Everest, Langtang, and Manaslu, among others. These routes have been getting an overwhelming footfall in tourist season.
We also have other beautiful hiking and trekking trails that need massive promotion from the government’s side. For example, our trekking routes in Kanchenjunga, Dolpa, Makalu, Simikot have less tourist footfall. This doesn’t mean these routes are not beautiful. We are lagging behind in promoting these destinations.
The government has recently announced that civil servants will get ‘tourism leave’ of 10 days every year. If this is implemented, the government should encourage civil servants to go to less-famous sites to boost domestic tourism.
What are some of the issues the trekking industry is facing at the moment? How has the government responded to solve those problems?
The government constructed a road in the Annapurna trekking route. The road has hampered the trekking route. It was among one of the 10 beautiful trekking trails in the world. But the road has ruined the beauty of the trail.
Rather than constructing view towers on the top of the hills, local governments should work in promoting and developing the tourism sector.
We have requested the government not to construct roads in such beautiful touristic areas. Also, local units are constructing infrastructures such as view towers without proper research. This is only ruining the beauty of the tourist areas.
Nepal has a lot of potentials in developing new trekking trails for which the government should take initiatives immediately. New routes should be developed after a detailed study. With new trails, the government should also encourage the private sector to develop the necessary infrastructure in the region. We have communicated this message to the government authorities several times but they don’t listen to the advice of tourism entrepreneurs.
It is often said Nepal is bringing in only backpackers who don’t help much in tourism growth. Why is Nepal failing to bring in high-end tourists?
We are open to every kind of tourist. We should not discriminate against them on the basis of how much they spend or they can spend. In recent years, both high-end tourists and backpackers are visiting Nepal. Actually, this is good for our industry.
As Nepali embassies are present only in a few countries, those who want to come to Nepal from the countries where we do not have our embassies will face difficulties in getting visas.
Let me give you an example. Both high-end tourists and backpackers are coming to see Mount Everest. Those who can spend more stay in luxury hotels. Backpackers find cheap hotels and spend less but they contribute to our economy in their own way. So we should not think Nepal should only bring high-end tourists. Nepal is open for everyone. Even backpackers are helping bring foreign currency to Nepal.
In the last spring season, there were reports of Covid-19 spreading in tourist areas. How safe are our tourist destinations now?
The majority of hospitality workers are already vaccinated against Covid-19. I think this gives a clear message to the international community that Nepal is safe. When we look at the overall data, almost 25 percent of the eligible population are vaccinated against Covid-19. Likewise, unvaccinated tourists are required to stay in quarantine for 10 days. I think our tourist destinations are safe. Having said that, we all must follow all the safety protocols.
Likewise, almost all the eligible people in major tourist destinations like Solukhumbu, Manang and other destinations are already vaccinated against Covid-19. Thus I can say that our tourist destinations are safe.
Why have we failed to develop new tourist destinations in Sudurpaschim and Karnali provinces even though they have huge potential?
The major hurdle is our flight fare. It is very costly. And even if tourists want to explore untapped areas in Sudurpaschim and Karnali, the roads are dangerous. If we think of developing a new tourism destination, we should look at three things: Access, attraction, and accommodation.
For the tourism sector as a whole to revive, hotels, restaurants, and airlines businesses need to revive
There are a lot of other problems too. The local governments, rather than constructing a view tower on the top of the hills, should work in promoting and developing the tourism sector. Provincial governments should also take initiatives. The efforts made by the private sector alone won’t be enough to develop the overall tourism sector.