Survive, revive, thrive

Every crisis is also a chance to improve. The global pandemic wrecked Nepal’s economy in 2020, and its impact will be felt on tourist arrivals for at least the next two years. But it also provides us the opportunity to re-invent the existing model of tourism.

This important sector of the economy could do with a major overhaul. The process should have started during the Covid-induced collapse of tourism, as the hotels, airlines, agencies were just trying to survive, with little indication of how long the crisis would last.

It now looks like global tourism will be affected right through the 2020s. Which is why Nepal’s tourism entrepreneurs and planners need to think about riding out the next two or three years, and plan for a revival.

The direction we have to take is clear: the benefits from climbing, hiking, wildlife, culture tourism must be more equitably distributed and conducted sustainably. Nepal’s new tourism model has to be high yield, the focus must be on maximum employment generation so people are not forced to migrate, while we also promote self-reliance in agricultural and other items that can be produced locally.

Spreading the benefits of tourism also means ensuring that visitor spending is maximised in the regions where it can make the most difference in uplifting socio-economic wellbeing. The existing model diverts most of the money visitors spend on their Nepal package to tourism wholesalers in Europe and other source countries, or agency middlemen in Kathmandu.

Nepal’s tourism has been sustained thus far by crumbs that find their way to rural areas. Which is why despite increasing trekking numbers, with some notable exceptions, there has not been significant impact on reducing out-migration from rural areas. In some cases, tourism has even driven up prices, making basic items unaffordable to locals.

Tourism netted Nepal $700 million in 2019, making up 8% equivalent of the country’s GDP. There were over 1 million Nepalis employed directly in the hospitality industry, trekking and mountaineering, with many more benefiting indirectly from arrivals.

But never has Nepal’s tourism sector suffered as badly as during this pandemic. Only 230,000 tourists came to Nepal in 2020— lower than during the worst years of the conflict, and less than during the Earthquake-Blockade of 2015. (See chart)

Ironically, Nepal’s foreign exchange reserves in 2020 hit a record-breaking $12billion despite the pandemic. This was because products needed by the tourism industry and petroleum products went down drastically.

Tourism has hit rock bottom, and there is nowhere to go but up. The question is do we keep on chasing visitor arrival numbers and tally annual hard currency income, or shall we try to redirect the focus to equity and spreading the benefits of tourism?

Visit Nepal 2020 tried to attract 2 million tourists last year, but with the pandemic the campaign was dead in the water. We might have hit the target for visitors had it not been mediocre and ad hoc planning. There was a lack of preparation in the main markets.

Nothing had been done to improve the squalour and pollution of Kathmandu and the lack of amenities along the main tourist corridors that had spread a negative image of Nepal through travel blogs. Even Nepal’s once-pristine countryside is now mauled by messy road-building which have wrecked scenic trekking routes.

Interestingly, despite everything we have done to dissuade tourists from visiting Nepal with the decrepitude of Kathmandu and an inhospitable state, the country is still a big draw.

The Covid-19 crisis has provided us breathing space. It gave us time to take stock of things, and set things right. The most immediate lesson is to refocus on Nepal’s nature as travelers in the post-pandemic era plan trips to pristine and tranquil areas in search of healing and rejuvenation.

This means building comfortable homestays instead of view towers, keeping trails clean and safe instead of laying concrete steps, and making visa, arrival, local logistics as convenient and smooth as possible. Tourists are not all looking for rock-bottom prices, they want value for money. And despite everything we have done to it, Nepal is still a premium brand.

The prediction of post-pandemic travel is that people will avoid long-distance flights. Our promotion must therefore be redirected to the immediate neighbourhood, as well as domestic and diaspora tourists. Visitors will want assurances of health and safety, and will be willing to pay premium rates for the diverse attractions Nepal has to offer.