We need to focus our attention on the Middle East, from where a large number of tourists could be attracted to visit Nepal

With the start of the spring season, the number of foreign tourists arriving in Nepal has increased, allowing the tourism industry and the mountaineering sector to breathe some sigh of relief, both of which have suffered big setbacks since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic last year. Tourism activities came to a standstill in the country during the government's months-long lockdown that also saw the suspension of expedition activities, causing huge economic losses to the government and the people traditionally engaged in mountaineering and trekking.

Nepal earns more than US$ 2 billion from the tourism sector, a good majority coming from mountaineering.

According to the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), as many as 217 mountaineers were issued expedition permits till Saturday, and the highest number – 138 – were issued for Mt Everest. A 16-member team from oil-rich Bahrain, led by its prince, has already reached the Khumbu region to summit the highest peak in the world this spring.

Despite the fear of the coronavirus pandemic, the Department of Immigration (DoI) said nearly 15,000 foreign tourists arrived in the country in March alone, which is the highest number of visitors entering the country in a month since last year.

Before the lockdown, upto 150,000 foreign tourists used to arrive in Nepal during this season. The number of tourists visiting the country, especially for mountaineering and trekking, are expected to gradually increase should the spread of the COV- ID-19 pandemic start declining, especially in India, where new cases of coronavirus infection have suddenly gone up in recent times. In March, the highest number of tourists from India (7,658) visited Nepal, followed by the USA (1,703) and China (1,207).

As per the DoI, the number of tourists from the US, Europe, Japan and Australia has dropped since last year due to the massive spread of COVID-19 there while the number of high-spending tourists from the Middle East has suddenly increased in adventure tourism since the last couple of years. Looking at this emerging trend, particularly in the expedition and trekking sector, the government, the NTB and tourism entrepreneurs need to focus their attention on the Middle East, from where a large number of tourists could be attracted in the mountaineering sector with additional packages. It is sad to note that the hotel industry alone is losing Rs 1.80 billion daily due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government has also lost millions of rupees in terms of VAT and other revenue due to the stagnation in the tourism business. The economic losses inflicted by the pandemic cannot be recouped overnight. What we can do is to shift our focus to new regions to encourage tourists to visit Nepal, especially for mountaineering, trekking, nature and cultural tourism. But we cannot compromise on the standard rules that the country has set in the expedition sector. No foreigner should be allowed to visit the popular trekking routes or the high altitude areas without them first producing a negative PCR report, and they must also follow the standard health protocols set by the government.

Lift the ban

What a paradox that more than 3,000 cubic feet of timber should decay and go to waste in Kailali's forests while people are deprived from buying or using them to build homes. The government had put a ban on the sale and distribution of the timber, citing irregularities and haphazard felling of sal trees in 92 community forests of Kailali. What seems absurd is that the government had given permission to chop down the trees under the Scientific Forest Management Programme and then slapped the ban on the sale of the timber.

Allowing the precious sal timber to decay is a colossal wastage of resources when the country imports wood for the furniture industry. If there has been any irregularity while felling the trees, then the government should take immediate action against those who have erred. By putting a ban on the sale of the forest product, the authorities are only encouraging the smuggling of timber across the border. Both the authorities and representatives of the community forest user groups should sit down to find a way to manage the timber before it is destroyed. It will only deprive the government and the consumer groups of an income that they are entitled to.

A version of this article appears in the print on April 6, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.