Since time is running out, we must forego this tourist season and start planning a strategy for the spring season

With the lifting of the prohibitory orders last week, urban life has seemingly returned to normalcy with crowds of people everywhere as if the coronavirus has been defeated for good. Shops, big and small, are open for business, so are restaurants, party venues and cinema halls. Schools in-person are due to open in the Kathmandu Valley from next week already. And those in the tourism field are upbeat that tourists will also start trickling into the country soon. But will they? A new report by the UN World Tourism Organisation has warned that it will take at least a year or two before tourism bounces back to its pre-pandemic level due to the uneven rollout of vaccines around the world. Before the pandemic scare, Nepal's hotels would have been brimming with tourists with the start of September that heralds the mountaineering and trekking as well as festival season in Nepal. Since Nepal went for a long lockdown in March last year, Nepal has been losing Rs 10 billion a month, based on average 2019 earnings, due the pandemic, according to Nepal Tourism Board. It has cost the jobs of 243,000 people directly and another 1.1 million indirectly, while the tourism sector's contribution of 8 per cent to the gross domestic product has contracted badly.

Despite the pessimism surrounding the tourism sector, still can something be done so that the autumn tourist season (September to November) doesn't go to waste? It's a fact that tourists could be wary of the still high number of new COVID cases being reported daily – 1,423 new positive cases on Tuesday and 21 deaths – although they have come down drastically over the months. For countries like China, Australia and New Zealand where one positive case is already one too many, Nepal doesn't look like a prospective destination in the immediate future. Nepal has reached a herd immunity of about 68 per cent, according to a recent health ministry survey, and majority of the workers in the tourism sector have now taken the jab against the virus. But industry experts think these alone would not suffice to lure tourists, nor would the government's decision to provide free visas to them.

Definitely, promotion of some of the positive news in the tourist-generating destinations might help convince tourists to come to Nepal. But they would want to know if a quarantine is mandatory while visiting Nepal, even if they have been fully vaccinated, as most countries require them to do so. A proposal to waive the quarantine provision for fully vaccinated travelers with a negative PCR report has been forwarded to the Cabinet for deliberation. Following the Cabinet decision, it would take some time to relay the message to the potential destinations. Since time is running out, we might have to forego this tourist season and start a plan for the spring season in March. But waiving visa fees and selling hotel rooms and tourism packages at dirt cheap prices are not going to do the country any good in revenue terms. In view of the changes seen in the global tourism trends caused by the pandemic, why not try to rake in more revenue by selling Nepal as an upmarket destination with fewer tourists? With so much tourism potential, it is time to stop selling Nepal so cheaply.

Machines remain idle

At a time when hundreds of people are suffering from renal failure and are waiting for dialysis support for their survival, dialysis and ventilator machines in Kalaiya Hospital in Bara district are staying idle due to lack of experts to operate them. The hospital had bought the machines through a tender process at a cost of Rs 4 million. Officials at the hospital said those machines could not be operated due to lack of technicians. The hospital has a quota of 59 staffers, but it is running with just 12 staff. Patients suffering from COVID-19 have also been deprived of health services as there are no technicians to operate the ventilator.

The question here is, why did the hospital buy the expensive dialysis and ventilator machines when it did not have technicians to manage them? The concerned authorities should have first arranged for the technicians who could operate them to provide health services to the patients. A similar problem was also reported from far-west Nepal where ventilators and other equipment provided by the government could not be operated due to lack of experts. The government needs first to deploy health experts and technicians before procuring a life-saving machine.

A version of this article appears in the print on September 9 2021, of The Himalayan Times.