Double-digit growth Tourism needs a boost

The year 2007 was a landmark for tourism industry as record tourists visited Nepal surpassing projections of half a million. Renewed interest in Nepal signals an impressive revival and provides a silver lining to what has been a bleak few years for the industry. However encouraging the circumstances of the past year, maintaining and enhancing these levels demand sincere, innovative, visionary and productive efforts.

Tourism seems to have both comparative and competitive edge that can give a new lease of life to the country’s faltering economy. The tourism sector is ready to help create lasting peace through creating jobs and boosting economy, but we need a conducive environment.

In today’s dynamic global business atmosphere, tourism is an engine of growth for many countries. From oil-endowed Gulf countries to nations of scant natural-resources like Singapore and Hong Kong, all are focusing on tourism. Tourism is the world’s largest service sector industry with annual revenues of almost $500 billion.

In Nepal, tourism has always been centre-stage when it comes to foreign exchange earning and job creation. It is said that a tourist visiting Nepal supports around a doz-en people. The World Tourism Council estimates that tour-ism in Nepal has created half a million jobs. Direct foreign exchange earnings are close to $20 billion annually, approximately 2.5% of the country’s gross domestic product.

It is imperative that the government and political leaders seriously begin discussing ways to help tourism bounce back. If ever there was a time not to let ideology dictate economy, it is now. Tourism should be guided by five principles — attracting maximum investment through both domestic and foreign sources, flexible labour laws, cutting red tape and establishing effective and efficient management in tourism related areas, and setting up infrastructure and positioning Nepal as a hub of South Asian tourism.

The decade-long conflict is over yet global perceptions have not changed. Hence, we must take it upon ourselves to deliver the message that Nepal is a peaceful and safe destination. To this end, immediate and urgent steps are required from both the government and private sector to repair the impaired image of Nepal, mobilise diplomatic missions abroad, stem the air seat crunch and improve services at the international airport, and piggyback on the success of Chinese and Indian tourism.

We must immediately begin executing an effective and vigorous promotional campaign to change the perception of foreigners. To improve our marketing efficiency, the private sector and the NTB have to find new ways to co-ordinate their efforts. Blockades, strikes and bandhs have to be put to an end. Trade unions — which have become hostage to the machinations of political parties — must be reined in.

Let’s open up our skies. The tourism and aviation industries are joined at the hip — neither can flourish without the success of the other. A grave shortage of air seats has been holding back the tourism industry. Our national flag carrier is on its deathbed. If the NAC has to be brought out from the current mess, no time should be lost in scouting for an international strategic partner airline with a wide network like Sri Lankan Airlines did with Emirates or even home-grown partner.

Tribhuvan International Airport is a nuisance for hospitability industry. Poor services there sully the very first impressions that travellers have of Nepal. It is imperative that immigration services be brought at par with those of other neighbou-ring countries. Land routes between Kathmandu and major tourist destinations are in disrepair. The capital itself, a city of unimaginable potential and cultural significance, is in dire need of a facelift.

In sharp contrast to Nepal’s fortunes, the tourism industry in India and China is experiencing unprecedented boom. India received over 4.4 million tourists in 2006/7, while China welcomed over 124 million visitors. Nepali tourism industry could not attract even a tiny portion of tourists visiting these countries. We need to work together with them to develop joint products and joint marketing strategies so that a greater proportion of tourists visiting India and China also extend their programme to Nepal.

Nepal is a unique and enticing destination. How else could we attract such a large number of visitors despite the lack of a concerted and aggressive marketing campaign? However, alluring tourism products like mountains, wildlife, and heritage sites do not in themselves guarantee tourist arrivals. Improvement in the tourism industry should begin by designating the tourism industry as a national industry. Such a declaration would go a long way to remove the impediments to tourism becoming an even stronger force in the economy. If these measures are taken, we can immediately attract one million tourists and surpass the two million mark in the near future.

Mishra is President, Nepal Association of Tour Operators