EDITORIAL: Out of service

Unlike tourism-related activities like safaris and mountain flights or even trekking, the star hotels depend almost entirely on foreign tourists

The year 2020 has been a bad year for everyone on this planet, and the COVID-19 pandemic that began with New Year’s Day has affected every sector imaginable.

Today is Christmas Eve and the New Year 2021 begins next week, but Nepal’s tourist hubs, either in Kathmandu or outside, show no signs of festivity or celebration. Foreign tourists long stopped coming to Nepal, what with the prolonged lockdowns in their home countries and in Nepal, bringing all related activities to a standstill, from sightseeing to trekking and mountaineering. With no tourists to cater to, tourism businesses have been struggling to pay even the basic wages to their staff. Things have reached such a stage that some institutions are laying off their workers for good. Hotel Annapurna, a five-star property in Kathmandu with a five-decadeold history, is shutting down as it can no longer pay the salaries of its more than 300 staff members.

Months ago, the hotel had signed an agreement with its staffers to pay them at least their basic salary, but since the deal is coming to an end soon, Hotel Annapurna has decided to shut down. And it’s a precedent that other star hotels could very well emulate in the days ahead.

All big hotels — from Soaltee Crowne Plaza and Radisson to Hyatt Regency Kathmandu — have laid off quite a sizeable number of their workers. The Soaltee Hotel, for instance, has laid off 135 workers and Radisson 65 staffers. Many hotels face a double whammy as they not only have no tourists but they also have huge loans to repay to the banks. The government had extended the repayment period of the loans and interest for tourism-related businesses by one year under its Monetary Policy. But with the coronavirus likely to stay around for quite some time, the government might need to extend the repayment deadline by another year. Unlike other tourism-related activities like safaris and mountain flights or even trekking, which have picked up some business in recent weeks following the lifting of the lockdown in September, the star hotels depend almost entirely on foreign tourists. Barring the hosting of some wedding parties, it is unlikely that Nepalis will stay in the star hotels, especially in Kathmandu.

The closure of big hotels in Kathmandu impacts all other businesses related to tourism, from airlines to travel agencies, as it is the entry point to the Himalayan nation. Thus, until foreign tourists are ready to fly into Kathmandu, it means no business for the hotels.

When this can happen will be decided by how soon the coronavirus is eradicated globally and in Nepal.

Hotel Association Nepal (HAN) has been trying to reach an agreement with Nepal Free Hotel Workers Union regarding layoffs as the six-point agreement reached between the two on July 20 is expiring next week. The new scheme would lay them off by clearing all outstanding dues, including their provident fund and other allowances. The tourism industry employs hundreds of thousands of people and is a major source of foreign exchange. It is indeed a pity that the government has no contingency plan to cushion the impact of the pandemic on the tourism industry and those dependent on it.

Airport upgradation

The government has made steady progress in upgrading the domestic airports despite the sevenmonth-long lockdown caused by the pandemic and ensuing economic recession. According to a report published by the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, most of the domestic airports have been blacktopped or are in the final stage of blacktopping. Recently, a new terminal building of Janakpur Airport has been completed, the length of its runway increased and its parking bay widened.

The government has a plan to develop it as a regional airport, considering the religious importance of Janakpurdham.

Likewise, the airports in Surkhet and Dang are also being improved with financial aid from the federal government. However, the ministry has not been able to spend the capital budget of Rs 1.90 billion allocated for this fiscal due to the lockdown. Despite the fact that the government has made huge investment in upgrading the domestic airports, some of them have been out of regular service due to lack of enough passengers. In order to make them fully functional, the government and private airlines need to work out a joint plan of action to reduce airfares, which are very expensive for the general people.