In a country where less than 20 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated, prospects of a 'vaccine vacation' bypassing the extended vaccine waiting time at home may be alluring. But then, it is also a luxury most Nepalis cannot afford.

Unlike some of their Indian counterparts actively promoting vaccine tourism packages, Nepali travel agencies do not seem to be sold on the idea, at least not officially, as confirmed by Achyut Guragain, president of Nepal Association of Tour and Travel Agents.

Eager to jumpstart their COVID-battered economy, a handful of popular tourist destinations from the United States to Bali and Abu Dhabi have launched vaccine tourism programmes.

"It may be difficult to establish that the main objective of any Nepali travelling abroad is to get inoculated," Prachanda Man Shrestha, former chief executive of Nepal Tourism Board, who is currently in the United States, told The Himalayan Times on WhasApp.

Amidst debate on whether or not such tourism campaigns could exacerbate vaccine inequity, Faris Hadad-Zervos, the World Bank country director for Nepal, Maldives and Sri Lanka, said the question of vaccine tourism was a complex one with both equity and efficiency considerations.

"On the one hand, access will be limited to those who have the resources to undertake such vaccine tourism in COVID times as opposed to more financially vulnerable people unable to bear the travel cost, while on the other, by vaccinating non-vaccinated incoming tourists, the host country can safeguard its own population, contribute to public good, and work towards economic recovery through travel and tourism, " he added.

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In any case, the link between tourism recovery and vaccination has already been established. A new report issued by the UN World Tourism Organisation warns that an uneven rollout of vaccines around the world means that 'it is unlikely tourism will bounce back to its pre-pandemic levels within a year or two'. Based on average tourism revenue of 2019, an NTB study estimates monthly tourism loss of Rs 10 billion in the wake of the pandemic. With its contribution of eight per cent to the GDP and direct employment of 243,000, and indirectly almost 1.1 million people, Nepal cannot afford to forego another tourist season, say stakeholders.

"The government has already announced free visa to foreign visitors and we are also promoting domestic tourism, especially targeting civil servants, which should be pivotal for recovery of the tourism industry," said Mani Raj Lamichhane, NTB director.

A recent health ministry survey revealed that over twothirds of Nepal's population has developed antibodies against COVID-19 and inoculation of majority of tourism sector workers should also lure visitors, he added.

But in view of the paradigm shift in global tourism trends, industry experts are not convinced it is enough.

"The government should be aggressively marketing and promoting such positive news because the success of autumn tourist season (September to November) hinges on Nepal's ability to persuade visitors of their health safety," said Suman Pandey, secretary/ treasurer of Pacific Asia Travel Association.

According to him, proper promotion and recovery strategy could help revive the tourism industry by up to 50 per cent of the pre-pandemic level. "The main deterrent for tourists wanting to visit Nepal right now is the mandatory quarantine requirement even if they have been fully vaccinated."

Meanwhile, Spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation Taranath Adhikari informed that the proposal for quarantine waiver for fully vaccinated travellers with negative PCR report has been sent to the Cabinet for deliberations.

A version of this article appears in the print on September 8 2021, of The Himalayan Times.