The entire tourism sector has been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak. While tourism activities across the country have been halted completely, the government has also decided not to issue climbing permits for spring expeditions across all mountains. Tourism entrepreneurs have been seeking relief packages from the government in a bid to cope with the situation while the government is still undecided about it. Against this backdrop, The Himalayan Times spoke to Santa Bir Lama, president of Nepal Mountaineering Association to know about the impact of the virus in the expedition sector and the tourism industry. Excerpts:
What is your take on the impact of coronavirus on tourism, especially the mountaineering sector?
Tourism activities in Nepal are at a complete halt since almost a month. It is almost clear that tourism is the sector that has been hit the hardest. As nobody knows how long it will take to contain the pandemic, it might take years for the tourism sector to revive. As mountaineering is a part of tourism, the virus has completely affected the mountaineering and expedition sector. Businesses across the world, including in Nepal, have been affected by the coronavirus. But at the moment besides anything else, the major focus should be on how to save lives and contain the virus. Once the virus is contained, the government should introduce measures to revive not only the tourism sector but the entire economy.
As all expeditions for this season have been suspended, what impact will it have on the mountaineering sector?
It is definite that expeditions are not possible this season which starts from May. Thus, this will surely affect the sector, including those entrepreneurs and workers involved in this sector and subsequently the government revenue. Even if the World Health Organisation (WHO) announces that the spread of the coronavirus has been contained within the next three months, the tourism sector will take another three years to completely revive. The mountaineering sector is linked to hotels, tour and trekking, among others. We cannot revive the mountaineering sector unless all these sectors and the entire tourism sector recovers from the effects of coronavirus. Almost 350 people had completed all processes for expedition for this spring season while hundreds of others were in the planning phase, but they have all cancelled their plans. We are not even in a position to calculate the loss in mountaineering sector. People will not start travelling immediately even after the coronavirus is contained completely. The focus of people across the world is how to be safe and how to protect others.
As the mountaineering sector is completely shut, don’t you feel it is the best time to enhance clean-up drive on mountains?
The April to May period is considered as the season for expedition. However, we are not going to have any business this season and the entire year. Thus, this expedition season is appropriate time for the government to expedite the cleaning of different mountains. Let the virus be contained, which might take a few months. Once the virus is contained, the government and private sector should come together to clean our mountains. The government has enough budget allocated for this purpose. Expediting the clean-up campaign of mountains will also create new jobs.
As different sectors have been seeking relief packages from the government, what are expectations of the mountaineering sector?
As I mentioned earlier, the expedition sector is directly linked to other sectors, including hotels. The hotel sector is the hardest hit sector by the coronavirus within the tourism sector. Thus, the government should bring in relief packages targeting the entire tourism industry. Hotels have large investments and they have to pay huge amount of interests and instalments to banks. The government should facilitate tourism entrepreneurs on issues related to tax and payments to banks. Similarly, a majority of hotels have to pay huge amounts as rental fee. If possible, the government should subsidise entrepreneurs on rental fees. As the government has started disaster-related funds, it should be mobilised effectively. We had expected to collect almost Rs 80 million expedition fee this spring season. This is only a visible loss in the sector. The government should take note of all these impacts on the tourism sector and introduce some supportive packages. But I must say that those who had not been paying taxes to the government earlier should not seek relief from the government.
A version of this article appears in print on March 24, 2020 of The Himalayan Times.