‘We need to change the way we work so that it is more contextual’

After quite a considerable delay and lot of power play, the government finally appointed Dhananjay Regmi as the chief executive officer of Nepal Tourism Board. While the country is celebrating Visit Nepal 2020 campaign, the responsibility of not only carrying the campaign forward but also enhancing the country’s tourism sector now rests on Regmi’s shoulders. Apparently, the new CEO has a long experience of research in this sector. Arpana Ale Magar of The Himalayan Times caught up with Regmi to discuss his plans and strategies for the promotion of the tourism sector. Excerpts:

You have just been appointed chief of Nepal Tourism Board. What are the strategies you plan to adopt to promote the country’s tourism?

I have come up with a very clear vision of exploring the potential of the country’s tourism industry and developing products. Before joining NTB, I had set nine major areas to work on. Improvement of organisational structure of NTB, financial reforms, plans for human resources development, emphasis on research and education, product development, infrastructure development, marketing and publicity, plan for conservation and plan for crisis management are the areas that I will focus on during my tenure. The time and scenario when NTB was established were different but we are still working in the same old system. Hence, we need to change the way we work so that it is more contextual. The basic guideline that I will follow while working at NTB will be based on how the country can benefit from the tourism sector. I will also be laying emphasis on international promotion of our products. For the current fiscal year, I will have to work as per the existing plan, however, from next fiscal year I will usher in a lot of changes at NTB.

While talking about product development, it has to be noted that Nepal has not been able to diversify tourist destinations. For years we have only been selling Everest region and Annapurna trekking circuit. What is your take on this?

It’s true that we have been only selling products in Kathmandu, Pokhara, Chitwan and Lumbini for many years. Even in the adventure sector we have been selling the same products till date. That is why I have been emphasising that the country now has to go beyond the regular products. We have to create new options for visitors for which I have planned to work with each provincial government to develop new products. NTB is like a think-tank, so we will now analyse the previous issues and present status of the tourism sector to act effectively for sustainable development of the country’s tourism industry. Till date no such big research or master plan has been formulated in the tourism sector. The private sector is also involved in only those areas where there is profit and have not diversified their products. However, I wouldn’t actually blame them for this because for any private business person to make investment anywhere, there has to be proper infrastructure in place. For instance, the Khaptad and Rara areas are one of the most beautiful destinations. But due to lack of infrastructure, there has not been any considerable investment in these areas. Hence, NTB needs to study the products that are saleable and the type of infrastructure required for that. Products need to be developed as per the visitors’ requirements. Thus, I am planning to collaborate with the provincial governments to study and develop new products. Thereafter the local governments need to promote the products. I plan to establish at least seven new products in the seven provinces during my tenure.

Where do you think is the country lagging in terms of promoting tourism?

I have always been saying that we are failing to identify our products. Only last year the government had declared 100 tourist destinations across the country. So, there is no dearth of new products, but we need to manage them. The reason behind the declining number of tourists and the short stay is that we have not been able to sell our products. For example, there are 1,541 glacier lakes in the country which remain frozen for three to four months of the year and could be utilised for iceskating activities. We can also promote cold water fishing in Karnali and our topography is also suitable for mountain biking. So, we need to identify trails for mountain biking. These are but just a few examples. The other area we need to work on is modernising our marketing tools. We are still stuck with distributing pamphlets and leaflets when the whole world is moving towards digitisation. We seriously need to develop digital marketing tools. With the growing use of smartphones, I feel developing an app would be more fruitful for marketing purposes.

The beginning of the VN 2020 year was disappointing due to several accidents in which foreign travellers lost their lives. How do you plan to address such issues?

Some accidents like the Annapurna avalanche is a natural phenomenon which we cannot stop. And due to the geographical location of the country we cannot be free from natural disasters. Having said that, I must emphasise that we do need to have a plan to prevent such accidents and if unfortunately they do happen, then we must be prepared with immediate rescue plans. However, the death of Indian tourists due to suffocation in a room in a resort in Daman is something we have to take very seriously. We need to regulate our service providers to prevent such incidents. It is completely the hotel’s mistake not to inform their guests about the weather and the use of gas heaters. They should take the responsibility of this incident. And talking about the coronavirus outbreak, the only thing we can do at the moment is use precaution. Definitely such incidents do affect the industry, but we need to have a plan B to overcome such situations.

The government is trying to spread the message that ‘Nepal is safe’ but how can we attract visitors in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic?

We have to spread the message and inform the world that we are safe and request them to travel to our country. The coronavirus outbreak is threatening the world. Based on the information of the World Health Organisation, we have made leaflets with a solidarity message, especially targeting Chinese tourists. Secondly, we have mentioned the precautions that we are using to prevent the virus from spreading. This is the right time to show our brotherhood to our northern neighbour so that tomorrow when they finally get rid of this virus, we will be the first country they will travel to. Moreover, we have also prepared a video for the visitors informing that Nepal is safe to travel. And all stakeholders have been collaborating to convey the message that Nepal is safe.

As tourist arrivals declined last year and this year we have already lost our guaranteed tourists from China, do you think we need to revise the target of two million tourists for 2020? 

The second month of the year has just started and there is still a long way to go. So, instead of ruing about the number of Chinese tourists we have missed out on, we should now concentrate on bringing more tourists from other countries. Hence, we have planned to invest the budget that we had allocated for promotion in China in other destinations. We hope this will help recover our market. It is too early to revise the target as such incidents are always for the short term. Hopefully, the coronavirus problem will be eradicated within a couple of months and we will have the usual flow of Chinese tourists. With regards to other countries, we have been conducting our regular activities, so there is no need to panic. I am still positive about VN 2020 and its target.

The power play at NTB was quite evident when your appointment was delayed even though your score was the highest among the eligible candidates. How has this been affecting the functioning of NTB? 

Since the post of the CEO of NTB is a very responsible position, these kinds of issues do occur. Hence, I would say that the delay in my appointment is a normal issue. I have not taken this seriously. Also, I cannot take responsibility of the system that was in place before my appointment. But now that I am here I will do my best to create a roadmap that is apt for sustainable development of tourism sector and I will also focus on product development. There might be differences between NTB and other stakeholders, but we need to realise that we are working for a common goal so we need to put aside the grievances that we have and forge ahead together.