The idea has been floated without doing the necessary homework and holding discussion with all the stakeholders
The government’s bid to push for uniform airfares for both locals and foreigners has seen mixed reaction, with the domestic airline operators terming it as impractical and the tourism entrepreneurs largely welcoming it.
The plan has been floated by Yogesh Bhattarai, who just took over as tourism minister on July 31. The government’s move to apply uniform rates for all types of passengers comes on the eve of Visit Nepal Year 2020, when the country is hoping to bring in 2 million tourists. Until now, airlines have been charging two sets of airfares for locals and foreigners, with the air operators setting the fare for Nepalis as per the base rate set by the government. Foreigners are charged more, and the airlines make a good profit, especially on routes that see heavy tourist traffic, such as Lukla, Pokhara and Chitwan, and on mountain flights.
The logic for applying uniform airfares, as given by those in the tour and travel industry, is that Nepal is the only country that sets different rates for travel and accommodation for locals and foreigners. This, according to them, has made Nepal a comparatively expensive destination and is dissuading foreigners from revisiting the country. The case against it is that Nepal might have to revise its charges in other sectors, such as mountaineering, where there is differentiation in the royalty charged.
It is not difficult to conjure up what will happen if the tourism minister has his way with the airfare. The fare can either come down to the level enjoyed by the Nepali passengers or go up to the one being charged for foreigners. In all likelihood, it will be a compromise between the two. This may cheer the foreigners, but will see widespread opposition from the Nepali passengers, many of whom rely on airplanes to ferry them to the remote destinations still untouched by roads. The fares for the locals, though cheaper, are still expensive for them, but still a flight is the only resort in times of an emergency, such as a medical complication. It is apparent that the idea has been floated without doing the necessary homework and holding discussion with all the stakeholders, including the ordinary Nepalies, who make up the bulk of passengers on domestic routes.
The tourism minister must be in a dilemma as to the course of action to take. Complaints have been heard from foreigners time and again as to why they should be charged more for a seat in a plane or bus when travelling with the Nepalis. Seemingly, it seems unjustifiable in having separate fares for separate people when they are receiving the same service. If such measures are indeed discouraging a visitor from coming to Nepal, then they must be corrected. Why should a foreigner walking into a restaurant pay a lot more than what the locals pay for a coffee or a bottle of beer or while taking a bus ride to, say, Pokhara or while buying a ticket to watch a football match? Nepal’s endeavour to lure more foreign tourists by cutting down on visa fees or providing visa on arrival has not helped tourist spending in Nepal. Actually, it was a dismal $ 44 a day in 2018, down from $ 54 a year earlier.
So rather than numbers, both the government and the tourism entrepreneurs should be chasing affluent tourists who are willing to spend more than the Nepalis.
The constitution has guaranteed the citizens consumer rights, under which they are entitled to standard services from the service providers and quality goods from the traders and sellers. But this provision has been found grossly misused by both. The consumers do not have any knowledge about where they should lodge their complaints when they are denied standard services and goods in the market. According to the Consumer Protection Act-2019, an offender is to be punished with a fine ranging from Rs 200,000 to Rs 300,000 if s/he is found guilty of flouting the rules. Consumers are largely cheated by the traders, especially during the festive seasons though the government bodies launch an inspection of the groceries.
An annual report of Province 3 issued by the National Human Rights Commission has revealed that many people do not know how to file a complaint against fraudulent traders. The report calls on the concerned authorities to launch awareness campaigns about the legal provision and the process of filing complaints against such traders. It is the duty of the government to launch market monitoring round the year.
A version of this article appears in print on August 30, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.