"There is no such thing as best season to travel to Nepal": Ambica Shrestha

With two-and-a-half months left for the Visit Nepal Year 2020 to kick off, the campaign committee has been criticised for lack of planning and preparations as a lot remains to be done in this short period of time. In this scenario, stakeholders are worried about the success of VNY 2020. Arpana Ale Magar of The Himalayan Times caught up with Ambica Shrestha, chairperson of Dwarika’s Hotel, to talk about the issues facing the tourism industry of the country, her personal experiences as a woman entrepreneur and her expectations from future generations. Excerpts:

What is the current status of tourism sector in the country?

I have been involved in this sector since 1960 and I have witnessed so many ups and downs in this period. In the early days, Indian agents used to sell travel packages of Nepal as there were no Nepali agents. Back then, we didn’t have much knowledge about tourism and establishing it as a sector in itself was the biggest challenge. A lot has changed since, from generation of new ideas, inventions and newer technologies. But along with the changing scenario, the challenges facing the sector has also changed — we are now faced with the challenge of development of this sector by focusing on infrastructure and air and road connectivity. The tourism promotional activities have been quite commendable and helped put Nepal on the global tourism map. Still, policy-level hurdles remain for the industry, so we should strive to overcome them. Although the industry is growing, it is yet to develop in a full-fledged manner.

What do you think are the reasons that Nepal’s tourism sector is lagging behind?

One of the major problems is that we are only concentrated on attracting more tourists so that we can earn more foreign currency. But we have failed to improve our service quality at the same time. What we should realise is that in tourism sector we only get what we give — meaning that we need to provide good quality service to attract more tourists and ensure that the visitors return again and again. Also, the industry is plagued by unhealthy competition among the service providers. Many have compromised on their services to cut corners and survive. That is why Nepal is known as a ‘cheap destination’ in the world. We should learn from Bhutan, where visitors do not get the kind of facilities they would in Nepal. But they have not slashed their rates and maintained their standards, which gives the message that quality does not come cheap. We must practise the same thing. Especially hotels should charge their guests as per their standard. Just because they do not have business they should not sell their rooms at low rates, but rather focus on ways to improve their service quality. Tourists will come if you provide good service at your hotel.

What kind of tourists do you think the country needs at present?

There is no such thing as category of tourists. It’s all about what kind of service they want. See, at present, stakeholders are busy attracting high-end tourists. But Nepal needs backpackers too. We must remember that our tourism industry started with the hippies. People learnt about tourists and tourism only after hippies arrived in our country. After the hippies entered Nepal, each house turned into a hotel, motel, coffee shop or a restaurant. We learnt about the hospitality sector. Even today we need backpackers for the survival of homestays and tourist hotels, and star-rated hotels need high-end tourists. There is a general misconception that we are not being able to earn much foreign currency because of backpackers. But the fact of the matter is that we have been unable to sell our tourism products. We need to introduce places where tourists can spend their money. High-end tourists refrain from coming here because we haven’t been able to offer them products on which they would splurge. Moreover, we lack proper connectivity and infrastructure. But even more than that, we have been unable to give attention to the details — catering to simple things like clean public toilets, maps, healthy food, hygienic environment would go a long way in ensuring that the visitors have a memorable experience in Nepal.

How can the tourism industry be improved?

First, we need to change the way of selling the destinations. Our tourism entrepreneurs seem focused on ‘tourist season’, whereas there is no such thing as best season to travel to Nepal. We should be ready to welcome tourists throughout the year as our climate is relatively mild and we have a variety of cultural, historical and natural resources to offer them. Mostly we consider rainy season as off-season, but tourists coming from the Gulf countries will surely enjoy our monsoon. Likewise, people from all over the world would surely be fascinated with our festivals, heritage sites and different cultures.

What is your view on preparations for VNY 2020?

I feel the concerned authorities have taken the Visit Nepal Year 2020 campaign very lightly. They have failed to understand that the campaign is as much for the benefit of the general public as it is for the government. With just months left before the new year, many people are not even aware of the campaign. The irony is that the success of the campaign depends on the involvement of the general public as well. Another issue is that of the destinations being promoted by the campaign committee. They are focused on the same regular destinations — Pokhara, Chitwan, Lumbini and Kathmandu Valley. But Nepal has unlimited natural, cultural and historical resources that are yet to be tapped. The organisers should realise that we need to offer new destinations rather than just spend millions in promoting the old products because nobody will buy the same thing repeatedly. VNY campaign committee seems more focused on bringing in two million tourists than improving the services and boosting the quality. The infrastructure built for VNY should be long-lasting. Much remains to be desired in terms of preparations and planning of VNY.

As a woman entrepreneur, what do you feel are your major achievements and challenges you have faced?

It’s always challenging for a woman to establish herself as an entrepreneur. I have pushed myself really hard to come this far in this field. During my early days, I did not have any skill training and knowledge about this field. We started our business with a travel agency, for which I travelled abroad and went from door to door and requested people to visit Nepal. The work-life balance was the major challenge for me. And you have to remember that this was back in the days when society did not see working women in a positive light. But I managed to overcome all the odds stacked against me. And today my children and grandchildren are looking after my business and I am working for the betterment of our heritage, our tourism. And I am satisfied with my life.

Do you have any suggestions or advice for women entrepreneurs in Nepal?

Compared to the days when I started my career, women today have more opportunities and platforms to become an entrepreneur. Moreover, women are getting good education, have better working environment and the platform to display their calibre. Today they can get different skill trainings and subsidies from governmental and non-governmental organisations to uplift their living standards. But not all women have to become entrepreneurs. They should do whatever they like, but be dedicated to their career choice. It’s all about will and dedication.

What kind of changes will you like to see in the tourism industry in the coming days?

Primarily, I would like to see the involvement of the young generation in the industry with new innovations, technologies and ideas. The major issue of our country is brain drain. Our young, skilled manpower is going abroad citing the lack of opportunities and platform in Nepal, which is not true. We do have opportunities here, but people have been unable to identify the opportunities. We are failing to utilise our resources. A large number of knowledgeable people must get involved for the development of the tourism sector. It is good to learn and gather experiences from abroad, but one must utilise that knowledge in the country. That’s how the country will develop. So, more researches and studies are required in the country’s tourism sector. We’ve got to know what the needs of tourists and tourism sector are. We should stop complaining and start working for development.