A dozen international tour operators bringing tourists to Nepal say bookings for treks and holidays in Nepal will be affected till next year and have urged the government to look into intrinsic problems of quality and safety that predate April’s earthquake.
Travel advisories by western embassies in Kathmandu and high liability insurance in the past two months have affected holiday reservations till the spring of 2016, but Nepal’s tourism was in decline even before the earthquake said participants at a three-day conference, ‘Turning Point in Tourism’ organised by Samarth.
“It took an earthquake for all of us to come and talk together. This says something about the lack of communication that exists in this market,” said Mick Chapman of Himalayan Guides UK and Australia.
More than a dozen international tour operators from UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, along with their Nepali partners, attended the conference. However, the Nepal Tourism Board and government were conspicious by their absence. The Board’s Ram Adhikari left one panel discussion on Monday even before the floor discussion began.
“The international tour companies can only do so much, we need to hear from policy makers who can actually bring a significant change to the tourism industry,” said Suresh KC, a tour operator based in Kathmandu.
Indeed, a panel on travel advisories was attended by a sprinkling of Kathmandu-based diplomats, but what participants heard was not very reassuring. The only silver lining was the relaxation by New Zealand this week of its travel advisory. “We have lowered our risk level for Nepal, which was raised in the immediate aftermath of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in April,” reads the updated advisory issued by the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Japan, while urging caution, also has not been dissuading its nationals from visiting Nepal.
While travel advisories, insurance premiums and safety were of immediate concern, many participants also raised grave concerns about the quality and professionalism of tourism services. Infrastructure bottlenecks and bureaucratic hassles were already affecting tourism from Europe, US, Australia and Japan.
Most governments said they were waiting for credible third-party risk assessment reports on trekking trails and heritage towns in Nepal before easing their travel advisories.
The United States still bears a Travel Warning, which was last updated two months ago. The warning states: “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens of the risks of travel to Nepal and recommends that they defer non-essential travel there following the 7.8 magnitude earthquake on April 25.”
While arrivals from India and China were compensating for the numbers, tourist spending, length of stay and the number of repeat visitors were already in serious decline even before April. Nepal was losing out to competitive destinations in a globalised industry.
Although tourism had rebounded somewhat after the royal massacre and the conflict, political disarray, the poor condition of Kathmandu airport, expensive flights, the Everest avalanche has raised concerns about security and the handling of rescue.
“It costs more to fly to western Nepal for a tourist than to fly to Europe,” said Jo Chaffer of KE Adventure, one of the largest independent adventure tour operators in UK. Other operators suggested that Nepal should diversify into emerging tourism attractions like mountain biking and family treks.
Nepal’s tourism sector has seen a significant shift in its major clientele from traditional European markets to a more Asia focused with an increase in Chinese tourists ver the past few years. But the product range travel services remain the same.
“We in the industry can’t just say Nepal is safe,” Chaffer said, “insurance companies want a third party assessment report that is credible and has quality data sources.” Some private companies have sent their own trekking guides to survey routes and assess safety, but this may not be enough to convince embassies and insurance companies.
One report commissioned by Samarth and carried out by Minamoto International to assess the Annapurna and Khumbu routes is expected to be released this week. Moving forward it is clear that the tourism industry does not only bear the burden of the short term losses due to the earthquake but also improving the quality of its tourism infrastructure and services.
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