Pandemic and Visit Nepal - 2020: Time for retrospection

Covid-19 is here to stay for long, and it is a long way to recovery for our tourism industry. So it will be tenable to promote tourism through a step by step approach starting from domestic then to regional (China and India), which will serve our interest for a long time

The novel coronavirus has turned the world topsy-turvy. Flying machines are lying idle on the tarmac; glaring neon lights at tourist spots are switched off. Restaurants and hotels are closed. Big international events, political demonstrations have all stopped. Cities, streets and highways around the world seem empty and desolate.

In this situation, we need not cry for the cancelled ‘Visit Nepal 2020’. In retrospect, we can spare time to learn a few lessons during this period.

The first and foremost job is to put our house in order. There will be no better opportunity than this. If we tried to promote VNY- 2020 in Australia when their houses were being gutted in an unprecedented forest fire, planned it for China when their cities and towns were suffering from the pandemic, and when naively considered declaring Nepal a corona-free country, then definitely our house was not in order.

Tourism is a strong contender in providing employment.

WTO estimates that tourism contributes 10 per cent of the global GDP and employs one in 10 workers worldwide, whereas this pandemic is putting 100 million jobs at risk as international tourism could decline by up to 80 per cent this year over 2019.

For example, income from casinos in Macau was virtually wiped out (96 per cent down in April). Airlines are experiencing a tsunami of bankruptcies.

Traffic through the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East was down by 95 per cent in mid-April. Airports completed in haste for bigger sizes are like ghost towns.

Tourism, a service sector of economic activities is romantic in nature where the outcome is perceptible but not tangible. We have unmistakable evidence of its positive outcome in the enhanced living standard in Namche Bazar, Mustang, and Pokhara. But now there is a sudden brake, and every destination has turned into ground zero.

Due to the lockdown, not a single sector of tourism has been able to operate in Nepal.

This translates into a loss of 1.05 million jobs and nearly 3.9 per cent of direct contribution to the GDP of Nepal.

The lockdown, a necessary evil, antagonised tourism development of Nepal to the limit. Nevertheless, it has provided a golden opportunity for respite and strengthen many important over-stressed destinations and nature upon which Nepali tourism depends, The photograph of the traffic jam on Mt. Everest in the social media is an example of mishandling of our environment (“Everest is over. Everest has lost its cultural power” - Margret Grebowicz). On the brighter side, the trekking route to Everest Base Camp was being cleaned using the lockdown period. Whereas, it is heart breaking news that the cleaning of the base camp is being abandoned for lack of funds. It is a premonition that the fund will never be available for other base camps, too.

According to the latest World Economic Forum report, Nepal is one of the cheapest countries to visit in the world, and is facing the risk of being branded as a low-cost destination. It is imperative to use this time to review and upgrade ‘Tourism-Nepal’ without shying away from its lacunas to refine future course of action with a creative approach, to reset it in a realistic rather than in an idealistic base, because the historical evolution and cultural settings of Nepal-tourism are substantially different from the classical tourism developed in the West. Therefore, the government’s obsession towards tourist numbers only needs to be revisited, considering the social dynamism of the modern world.

Tourism although not a panacea has the undeniable capacity to help put our national economy on track and retrieve its lost energy.

But the problems are many.

Dealing with these is not an easy task as it depends on many unknown variables.

The pandemic is real, and there can be no tradeoff between health and economy.

Escalation in social stress has created a surrealistic ambience in the world.

Analysis and projections made by experts are now redundant. Moreover, the course of international politics is highly unpredictable, and we are affected most of the time by decisions made elsewhere.

Although the pandemic has shaken the tourism world to its hilt, it has given us time to correct the uncorrected, and explore and expand the tourism zones.

The mountain is always young, and cities and towns are the engine of growth of tourism. Tangential efforts to address local people’s lives and their integrity in these places are synonymous with unsustainable tourism. Tourism should be the benefactor for conservation of their culture and heritage, which are not commodities to be traded for monetary benefit.

Despite flying becoming more frightening than romantic now, airports are an important part of travellers’ experiences, and more so for Nepal. It is commendable that Gautam Buddha and Pokhara regional-international airports, and 330-meter extension of TIA Kathmandu runway used the lockdown period effectively.

This spirit needs to be replicated in other tourism infrastructures as well.

On the other hand, the TIA terminal building, one of the most important buildings of architectural value of modern Nepal, needs conservation, which has been gradually deteriorating due to mismanagement.

Covid-19 is here to stay for long, and even with a high degree of optimism, it is a long way to recovery for our tourism industry. So it will be tenable to promote tourism through a step by step approach starting from domestic then to regional (China and India), which will serve our interest for a long time. To prepare one genuine ‘Visit Nepal Year’ needs unequivocal support of a ten-year clairvoyant plan, including five years of implementation, because Visit Nepal is a development endeavour (project) not just a festival for marketing.

Gongal is urban/tourism project planner, past chairman of SAARC Regional Architects