The national tourism campaign, Visit Nepal 2020, was inaugurated on January 1 in the presence of national and international delegates at Dasharath Stadium. Amidst the support and criticism that the government has received it has claimed that the campaign will be successful in meeting the target of bringing two million tourists, which many consider a highly ambitious target. The government is also being criticised for lack of infrastructure and pouring money into trivial events. Against this backdrop, Arpana Ale Magar of The Himalayan Times caught up with Suraj Vaidya, coordinator of the campaign secretariat, to talk about the campaign’s targets and upcoming plans. Excerpts:

The inauguration ceremony of VN 2020, as per some people, was not as grand as envisaged earlier. Do you agree?

For me personally it was a grand success. There were inauguration events held across all seven provinces and not only in Kathmandu. This shows that the people have taken ownership of the campaign. And that for me is success as it shows that we are on the right track.

Participation of foreign delegates was not as expected, isn’t it?

It was wishful thinking on our part to expect as many foreign delegates as we had initially expected at that time of the year. Since people across the world celebrate Christmas and New Year at that time it is obvious that participation of foreigners would be low. However, the important aspect here is that the tourism ministers of India and China were present. This is significant because these countries have the largest outbound tourists. Tourism ministers from Myanmar and Jamaica also participated in the event. Myanmar is equally important for us as we are preparing to have a grand event for Buddha Jayanti this year and we are trying to get , a prominent leader of the country, here for the celebrations. Moreover, we also had 19 other senior delegates from foreign countries.

Some major announcements such as free visa for tourists were expected during the inauguration but that did not happen. Why is it so?

I have been informed that the government will soon launch some packages and I hope they do it soon. Meanwhile, the

private sector has introduced some discount packages for the duration of the campaign. All the tourism organisations including Hotel Association Nepal, Nepal Association of Tour and Travel Agents, Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal and Homestay Association of Nepal, among others have offered different discount packages for tourists.

What is the secretariat focusing on now that the campaign has been launched?

We will be focusing on marketing the campaign in the domestic and international market for the next three months. There are seven major lifetime experiences going to be held in all seven provinces. For instance, we will have events related to climate change with focus on Mount Everest in Province 1 and in Province 2 we will be hosting Vivah Panchami in Janakpur. Likewise, in Province 3 we will focus on spiritual tourism and in Gandaki Province we will be organising mountain biking along Kaligandaki, the world’s deepest gorge. In Lumbini Province we will be celebrating Buddha Jayanti and in Karnali Province we will be promoting the Rara Lake. Finally, in Sudurpaschim Province we will be hosting the world’s longest rafting along Karnali River.

It has been reported that the campaign is being promoted in the international market only through regular programmes of tourism associations and the secretariat has not done anything substantial. Is this true?

I wouldn’t agree with that statement. We are, in fact, coordinating with all stakeholders to promote the campaign. We are also working with a lot of international media and we will soon sign agreements with seven of the leading media houses in India to promote the campaign. We are coordinating with as many programmes as possible that are being held within the country and in the international market for VN 2020. We are also working with influencers and collaborating with large companies for MICE business. We have also been requesting the United Nations, World Bank and World Wildlife Fund to host their international conferences in Nepal. If that does materialise then we will have substantial number of visitors as around 500 to 600 people participate in each such conference and they are high spenders. Promotion is not only about offering services. It also includes appreciating those who have helped us in times of need and requesting them to visit again. We have already conducted such programmes in the UK, South Korea, India, China and Canada and will be organising more such events. We have also held meetings with our ambassadors posted in various countries across Asia and requested them to promote the campaign through their respective embassies. In fact, we will be holding the inauguration of VN 2020 in all our embassies on January 7. We also plan to conduct bigger marketing events in those destinations with whom we have direct flight connectivity.

Some are sceptical about the target of bringing in two million tourists in 2020. Is it achievable?

The ‘number’ is not the only priority of the campaign. There are other areas too we are focusing on. The campaign is not only for today but for tomorrow too. If we can attract 1.2 million tourists by promoting only Mt Everest, Annapurna region, Kathmandu, Pokhara, Chitwan and Lumbini then imagine the number of travellers we can bring in by showcasing other destinations. It will be a futile exercise if we can bring in two million tourists in 2020 and the number drops immediately the next year. So, this campaign is actually like a platform to promote sustainable tourism in the country that will benefit the tourism sector in the long term. We are also looking at attracting sustainable investments in the tourism industry as this will not only benefit the industry but will have a wider social impact by generating more employment opportunities.

Rather than just increasing the inflow of visitors, should we not be focusing on increasing their length of stay and spending?

Nature has been kind to us and bestowed one of the most stunning landscapes in the country and we need to not only appreciate that but also make the best use of it. So, we need to promote more destinations that have not been highlighted till date. Moreover, we also need to improve the products and services that we are providing. Once, we are able to do so it will automatically help us in increasing the length of stay and spending of foreign guests. New products and destinations are of utmost importance as people will not want to visit the country for the same experience all the time.

Infrastructure continues to be a major hurdle in tourism promotion of the country. What is your take on this and do you think it will affect the campaign?

It is true that the country lacks proper infrastructure for tourism and we need to drastically improve on that front. Meanwhile, the government has realised that and has started adopting various steps to improve infrastructure. For instance, even during the tenure of late tourism minister Rabindra Adhikari we would visit Tribhuvan International Airport quite often to take stock of the condition there. And I believe the TIA has gone through some good changes. From the runway to the terminal building and the waiting room at the airport everything has witnessed major changes. We are also putting pressure on the government to make sure that the Gautam Buddha International Airport and Pokhara Regional International Airport start operations in the first quarter of 2020. The road conditions in the country too are not so good but when we compare the roads to the situation they were in five years ago I think there have been vast improvements. We need to be more focused on improving our infrastructure because at the end of the day that is what always plays a crucial role in making a tourist’s stay comfortable.

The campaign seems to be more focused on foreign visitors than on domestic tourists. Don’t you think domestic tourism is also important?

We are trying to promote domestic tourism as much as we can. However, we are not just focused on making people travel to various destinations but also in making them aware that we need to preserve what we have. There is a lot that Nepal can offer but we as citizens need to make sure they are promoted in a sustainable manner. And for this purpose we have coordinated with the ‘Aafno Gaun Aafai Banaun’ project. And in the last six months the VN 2020 secretariat has worked with organisations that have involvement of youths who are trying to show the world what Nepal has. A lot of companies organise corporate retreat programmes and team-building events. So, we are requesting them to explore new destinations in the country to host such events. That’s why NTB has also launched ‘Pahile Desh ani Bidesh’ campaign. That simply translates into first visiting destinations within the country and then only planning a foreign trip. We are also working with schools and colleges to make youngsters aware about the potential that the country has and to tap into that potential.