Heritage sites reopen, but safety concerns remain

BHAKTAPUR: Nepal reopened its temple-filled Durbar Squares to the public on Monday despite warnings over safety, trying to woo back tourists after a deadly earthquake that left much of the country’s cultural heritage in ruins.

Traditional dancers and musicians performed at a ceremony in the historic town of Bhaktapur, home to one of three former royal squares in the Kathmandu Valley that date back as far as the 12th century.

Hundreds of people gathered in Bhaktapur Durbar Square, whose historic Hindu temples, statues and opulent royal palaces drew tourists from around the world before the quake.

The 7.6-magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal on April 25 killed more than 8,700 people and levelled homes and monuments in the valley, home to the three former kingdoms of Patan, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur. All three former royal squares reopened today but the main ceremony was held in Bhaktapur, where Tourism Minister Kripasur Sherpa declared the Kathmandu Valley ‘open for tourism’.

Nepal’s tourist industry has been devastated by the disaster, which struck at the height of the spring trekking season and killed dozens of tourists.

The head of the Department of Archaeology, Bhesh Narayan Dahal, urged foreign visitors to return to the Himalayan country. “Nepal is safe, don’t worry... this is our clear message for today,” he told AFP in Bhaktapur.

But a warning from the UN’s cultural agency that the quake-damaged structures could pose a threat to visitors dampened the celebratory mood.

“There is still a risk that buildings might collapse,” said Christian Manhart, head of UNESCO in Nepal. “In the Kathmandu Durbar Square an entire facade is in danger of falling down, we cannot have people walking under it.” The Nepal Economic Forum, a Kathmandu-based think tank, says 80 per cent of hotel reservations have been cancelled since the quake.

Jason Landis, a 25-year-old American volunteer who arrived in Nepal after the quake, said he hoped tourists would now return. “Reopening is a good thing as it raises awareness of how (the square) has been destroyed,” he added. But others were more sceptical about the prospect of a rapid return.

The United States, Britain and Canada are among a number of countries still advising against all non-essential travel to Nepal, citing the risk of aftershocks and further landslides.

Dozens of people were killed last week by a landslide triggered by heavy rain in the northeast.

Simon Watkinson, a British travel agent in Nepal to help with relief efforts, said the reopening of the heritage sites would not bring back tourists.

“It does not change anything given that foreign countries have issued advisories saying that Nepal is unsafe,” he said.

The whole of the Kathmandu Valley is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site for seven separate groups of monuments — the three Durbar Squares, the Buddhist stupas of Swoyambhu and Bouddhanath and the Hindu temples of Pashupati and Changu Narayan.

Swoyambhu and Changu Narayan are slated to reopen in coming days, even though UNESCO says there is a risk of landslides in the area.

The Durbar Squares, which date back to the period between the 12th and 18th centuries when the Valley was divided into three Hindu kingdoms, are at the heart of local life as well as being a major tourist draw.

Ram Autar Das, a 44-year-old tourist guide who has worked in the Kathmandu Durbar Square for 20 years, said he feared losing his livelihood.

“Without tourists there is no job for me. I don’t know what else I will do,” Das said.