Chinese tourists return to NepalBut visitors number would rise further with more promotion, and direct flights to Pokhara and Bhairawa
Before the Covid, China had become the number two source of foreign tourists in Nepal. Now, after a two year slump the Chinese are returning.
After the opening of China’s borders this year and resumption of flights from Chengdu, Guangzhou and Hong Kong, arrivals have surged. Most of the mountaineers attempting to climb Mt Everest this season are from China because the north side of the mountain is still closed.
Mandarin is once more heard in tourist hubs like Thamel and Pokhara, and Chinese trekkers are once more hitting Himalayan hiking trails. Although they are coming back, Chinese are still trailing behind Indian tourists.
Tourist arrivals in Nepal are almost back to pre-Covid levels with 326,500 visitors between January-April this year, and tourists flying in from India made up 28% og them. This number does not include Indians who came overland on pilgrimage or sight-seeing.
Nearly 200,000 Chinese tourists visited Nepal in 2018 after free visas were announced, making up 20% of the total visitors by nationality. Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) was expecting to double that figure in Visit Nepal Year in 2020, when the pandemic struck.
In April this year, there were 3,000 Chinese tourists, and these numbers are expected to rise as flights pick up. Nepal’s largest domestic airline, Buddha Air has seen a rise in the number of Chinese passengers from Kathmandu to Pokhara, Bharatpur and Bhairawa. The airline says that it has also seen a rise in booking of Chinese tourists taking its daily four Mt Everest sightseeing flights.
Pre-Covid, Pokhara was the most popular destination in Nepal for Chinese tourists after the scenic town was the location for a popular Chinese tv series, Up In the Air that went viral on the Chinese micro-blogging site, Weibo. Chinese guidebooks described Pokhara as one of the top ten places ‘to see before you die’. Beijing has also declared Nepal as an ‘official destination’ for its nationals.
Then Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi posted pictures of herself on social media on New Year’s eve 31 December 2019 to promote Nepal among outbound tourists from China. Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) recruited famous actress Xu Qing (see photo below) to be its Goodwill Ambassador to promote Visit Nepal Year in China.
Chinese tourists are mostly attracted by the culture and the mountains in Nepal, but they also come for wildlife viewing, adventure and pilgrimage to Lumbini. Chinese tourists are the most avid shoppers for Nepali bronze and wood carving handicrafts.
The birthplace of Lord Buddha in Lumbini was first chronicled by Chinese monk pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang who visited Lumbini and Tilaurakot in the 4th and 7th century CE, and described the ruins of the towns in detail. Modern day Chinese are following in their footsteps.
Tourism entrepreneurs in Thamel say that Nepal could do much more to encourage Chinese tourists if there were more cheaper flights, if the border checkpoints wereopened, and if there was more promotional activity in China.
According to Lumbini Development Trust, Chinese tourists are the fourth largest number of visitors among foreigners in the Lumbini area. The establishment of the Gautam Buddha International airport in Bhairawa and the new Pokhara airport could serve to increase Chinese arrivals if there were direct flights from Chinese cities.
Chinese tourists when in Nepal also visit Thamel’s ‘Little China’ area where there are many Chinese owned shops and restaurants. With the popularity of WeChat among the Chinese, many shops in Thamel and Patan have also adopted this payment app.
Buddha Air, for example, is already using WeChat for flight bookings and tour packages specifically targeting Chinese tourists.