It is April-end and Pokhara is bustling with activity. Without a booking, you will be lucky to find a room even in a two-star hotel. The restaurants on Lakeside are busy, and the sky above Sarangkot is dotted with colourful paragliders every morning. Ultralights buzz the Peace Pagoda, and it is rush hour on Jomsom flights. Tourism and businesses are hopeful, exploring new investments.
Pokhara survived the insurgency, political instability and frequent bandas. With politics progressing favourably now, tourism has rebounded and businesses have picked up. Pokhara is cashing in not just as a base camp for trekkers to the Annapurnas and an appendage to Kathmandu, but is inventing new ways of becoming an internationally-recognised adventure destination on its own.
Few years ago, the city used to be closed during off seasons, but now it is a popular stop all year through for trekkers, honeymooners and for refugees from the capital who want a quick getaway. Chinese, Indian and local tourists have filled in the gaps. In fact, room occupancy by domestic travellers grew by 15 per cent this year, increasing the share of domestic tourism to 40 per cent. Pokhara has also seen a surge in free individual travellers (FITs), who usually spend more and stay longer than group travellers. Yoga and meditation tourism is also growing.
The scenic city is selling not just nature's offerings, but also developing into a health and education hub for the country. Banking and real estate industries have also recovered from the flight of Gurkha families and is taking off, reflecting the optimism in the market.
The picture looks rosy. But ask any businessman in Pokhara and the common complaint is that Kathmandu has done absolutely nothing to support Pokhara's development. The pot-holed highway that welcomes travellers into Pokhara is a testament to the lack of concern showed by the central government towards the city's progress. The roads are bumpy too. There has hardly been any investment in infrastructure to push Pokhara forward. Plans for a new airport are finally taking shape after languishing for 35 years. Problems of water scarcity and loadshedding plague businesses, increasing their overheads by over 50 per cent.
New investors are nervous, as in the case of the paragliding industry which even after 13 years is not governed by specific regulations. Although the security situation has improved, tourism entrepreneurs are not confident enough to venture too far from Lakeside. "The municipality doesn't even regularly come to collect garbage," says one hotelier. "It is useless to expect anything else from them. The government exists only to collect taxes."
So the private sector is stepping forward. The "Jaun Hai Pokhara" campaign was successful in boosting domestic tourism. Following its lead, tourism entrepreneurs started "Chaliye Pokhara" campaign in Indian cities this year. Hoteliers now want Lakeside to be open 24 hours.
The central government can play an important role in easing operations for businesses and improving the investment environment. With over 300,000 tourists visiting Pokhara every year and development in other sectors, the city makes a significant contribution to the country's economy. Pokhara has been the poster city for Nepal's tourism for long. It's payback time.
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