Is Nepal ready to welcome tourists?

KATHMANDU: We stumbled, fell, but now we are trying to get back on our feet. Everything is gradually crawling back to ‘normal’. It has to, though the fear of another shake looms. Perhaps the day when the conversation does not revolve around earthquake and aftershocks, we will half win the battle. For now the attempts cannot be halted. Open restaurants, shops, regular load shedding hours make one feel we are in the process to normalcy. But when you see the otherwise robust Thamel wearing a deserted look, the coin flips. On the way to recovery this is not a good sign — Nepal needs tourists, for the people, for the country. So, the big question that looms — how ready is Nepal to welcome them?

Exploring the basics

Tourists are willing to come here and there is no reason why they shouldn’t. The visit, nonetheless, has to be at an appropriate time. “The time becomes appropriate when as we can stop feeling panicky. We give up sleeping on the ground floor or the tents that have sprung up in Kathmandu will be packed up — that will be a confidence building measure. When most of us are sleeping on the ground floor, how can we expect tourists to stay in seven storey hotels? The time may not be right right now, but it will be. That is the time when we need tourists to come back,” says Ashok Pokharel, (President of Nepal Association of Tour Operators, NATO), Director of Shangrila Tours (P) Ltd.

The Nepal Tourism Board has been tourists to not cancel their August/September trip, but what sort of assurance can we give them for tomorrow morning? “We don’t know when the next shake is coming, so we can’t tell them things are fine and so come here. Our heritage sites have not opened so far. Once these are opened, then there will be something to do,” reasons Pokharel.

Given the circumstances, Pokharel’s points be ignored but then the airport is fine, flights are working fine, tourist hotels are safe (more than 90 per cent), major highways are operational, out of 35 trekking routes only five have been affected, is what Tulasi Prasad Gautam, Director General at the Department of Tourism at Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation claims.

Even Ang Tshering Sherpa, President of Nepal Mountaineering Association, backs the claim saying there is not much problem in the Annapurna and Everest trekking trails (the most popular ones); there is slight damage, “but we are trying to maintain the infrastructure by next season and it should be ready”.

As far as the hotels are concerned, Binayak Shah, Secretary General of Hotel Association Nepal assures that “95 per cent of the tourist hotels are safe and functioning and places that aren’t safe won’t be recommended”.

Birendra Prasad Shrestha, Acting General Manager at Tribhuvan International Airport, Civil Aviation Office, also echoes the same. “We are well prepared and well facilitated to receive passengers. After tourists arrive, they will not have any problem like baggage claim.”

However, this claim was put to shame by Kristen Capel, who arrived in the Capital on June 2 from the USA. “If only the bags could come a little faster, it would be good. We had to wait for maybe 45 minutes for the bags.”

 State of tourism

After April 25, along with the country, everything associated with it has been affected, and tourism bears a big brunt. The state of this sector is in a mess. Figuratively there is “99 per cent no tourists, which is beyond pathetic. We lost everything as far as tourism is concerned. We are at zero. How fast we move — it depends on that. At least we must be able to say our City is safe like anywhere else and then we have to be able to show this by action on the ground,” Pokharel says.

As per a rough calculation, between April 25 and July 15 last fiscal year we had approximately 1,75,000 tourists (all nationalities) “that is what we lost”. That translates to about $100 million worth of business nett loss for this fiscal year. So if we assume it had stayed same as last year 8,00,000 tourists level, now we are looking at 2,40,000 odd visitors for the whole of the next year (2015-16). “This is the worst case scenario in sense that even in the darkest time of Maoist insurgency, we were able to retain 30 per cent of our tourism arrivals. If we could retain 30 per cent, then we can do that now.”

But tourist destinations cannot just bounce back. It takes time to get there.

There will be a problem if tourists do not come to Nepal, so action needs to be taken. What can be done becomes another crucial question. “One, we need to assure any impending visitor of their safety. Two, we need to be able to show them that our hotel services are better than before, guides are better, we need to raise the bar. We need a well grounded and truth evincing safety assurance component,” says Pokharel.

Where is the assurance?

Undoubtedly there has been a lot of damage, but there are a lot of places for tourists to visit, according to Gautam. Talking about only Kathmandu — Pashupatinath, Boudhanath are open for visits and the government is trying to open Swayambunath soon just restricting entry to certain areas.

“We are well prepared, but they (tourists) also have to be prepared themselves like being well-informed, trekking through company with guide et cetera,” says Gautam. But they need assurance that it is safe here... “The government is going to publish a white paper soon around June 15. On this date, we will decide how many heritage sites can be opened. Along with that, we will sit with the consulars here and communicate with them and satisfy they queries. Also we will communicate with various diplomatic communities abroad. We are in the preparation phase now.”

Where Gautam gives all possible reasons how we are ready, Pokharel cites some other issues that show we are still not ready yet. “Our trekking trails are yet to be surveyed. We know that Manaslu and Langtang are beyond trekking right now, but as a measure of confidence-building, we need to get a third party out to Everest and Annapurna and say that these trails are safe.”

And this needs to be done soon as the next season will begin in August.

There seems to be a plan in place, but how feasible it will be is yet to be decided because what Gautam puts on the plate seems insufficient. “In Annapurna and Everest range, we will assess roads through an international assessment team. This will start before monsoon, they will issue an ad hoc certificate and after monsoon they will revisit the area in August.”

Adding on to the subject Sherpa says that just saying safe is not enough, “after some trails are fixed, international organisation representatives need to be brought here and they need to be convinced about the safety”.

Questions have been raised, answers have been varied, but the to-do list seems to be adding up. Preparation for tourists to visit for the next reason begins now, if things don’t speed up we will be in a state of limbo. So what do we want? It time for action to do the talking.