Cleared to land

Pokhara's much-delayed new international airport is scheduled to open early next year. Photo: Krishna Mani Baral

2020 was a write-off for Nepal’s tourism, and for Pokhara, the country’s prime destination, it was catastrophic. But guess who have come to rescue the city from complete ruin: Nepali travellers.

Pokhara’s hotels, bars, paragliding and ultralight clubs for which international tourists were the main source of income have, at least partially, recovered because of domestic visitors.

To be sure, Lakeside wears a forlorn look—especially since Phewa has been drained for dam repairs. The trekking trails of Annapurna Base Camp, Mardi, Sikles, or Ghorepani for which Pokhara served as a base camp, are also largely deserted.

One year on after the pandemic scare sent visitors home in a hurry, Pokhara has never really recovered. More than 25% of hotels, restaurants and shops that depended on tourism have permanently closed, others are for sale.

Some Pokhara restaurants like Mughlan are open for business.

“Pokhara has more than 700 hotels with 30,000 beds, but the pandemic has affected all of them, including restaurants, paragliding and ultralight companies, zipline,” says Gopi Bhattarai of Pokhara Tourism Council. “They all need a stimulus, tax breaks or debt rescue from the government.”

But Pokhara has survived. The city’s hospitality industry now sees light at the end of the tunnel with the new vaccines, a drop in Covid-19 cases in Nepal, the completion of Pokhara’s new international airport. But most of all , it is the arrival of fellow-Nepalis that offers respite.

Many urban Nepalis fed up of being locked down for months yearned to escape. For those  planning to get away from Kathmandu’s pollution, or the damp cold of fog-bound Tarai cities, Pokhara became the ideal escape.

“We have at least 50-60 Nepali passengers on package tours to Pokhara from Kathmandu every day through our Buddha Holidays subsidiary,” says Buddha Air Managing Director Birendra Bahadur Basnet

Photo: Niranjan Shrestha

Photo: Tulsi Rauniyar

Basnet has big plans to make Pokhara’s new airport the hub for his expansion into western Nepal in 2023 with a new aircraft that can operate in remote airfields with short runways. He also sees huge potential for Indian tourists after the border is re-opened, for which he plans Nepalganj-Pokhara flights.

After the lockdown, the tourism industry here realised that internal visitors could sustain the sector until international tourists returned. It launched the Jaun Hai Pokhara campaign in eastern Nepal in December, and in the Western Tarai in April. Pokhara’s businesses also lobbied hard with the government to declare a 5-day work week in an effort to tap weekend visitors.

“If the government introduces two-day weekends, that would support internal tourism, while providing Nepalis with a much-needed stress relief caused by the pandemic,” says Bhattarai at the Pokhara Tourism Council. “But now is the time to also diversify our destinations, we cannot depend on the same landmarks like the lake, waterfall and cave.”

Airlines, hotels and travel agencies are waiting for the much-delayed Pokhara International Airport opening early next year so that more domestic flights can be accommodated, and international tourists can bypass Kathmandu.

Drone image of Pokhara's new airport looking east.

Says Binesh Munankarmi, manager of the airport project: “Domestic tourists will now be able to come to Pokhara for  weekends, which has not been feasible due to the restricted flights. And Pokhara will be connected directly to the outside world.”

Kashi Raj Bhandari, head of Gandaki Province for Nepal Tourism Board thinks that post-pandemic the airport can start flying in tourists from neighbouring countries. He says, “Since Covid-19 is under control, we must open our borders to visitors from China and India. Later, we can also think of European, North American and East Asia visitors. There is  a lot of pent-up demand for wilderness adventures in Nepal.”

However, even though the coronavirus numbers are not as frightening as before, some business owners here are not so optimistic about the return of international tourists. Of the two 5-star hotels in Pokhara, only one is functioning, four 4-star hotels are open but they all have only 10% occupancy even with domestic tourists.

“Foreign tourism is zero, and it does not look like they will return until the conditions improve,” says Bikal Tulachan of the Paschimanchal Hotel Association. “Even if the Covid-19 numbers are down, political instability is hurting travel and shutdowns have started again.”

Some, however, have taken the opportunity of the lockdown to expand, maintain and upgrade their hotels in the hope that travel will pick up and even exceed pre-Covid levels. Raniban resort is spending NRs60 million to add 14 more rooms.

“Local tourists have started coming, but until international guests return we will not be able to sustain the business and keep paying staff salaries,” says Raniban’s Aksab Shrestha. ‘Despite all this the future of tourism in Pokhara is bright. That is why we are investing on expansion.”

Annapurna II and IV by moonlight from the window of Barahi Hotel on Sarangkot. Photo: Niranjan Shrestha

At the Shangri-La Village resort in the city occupancy over new year was 90% thanks to Nepali guests. “We would not have had so many Nepalis staying before the pandemic,” says manager Gupta Giri.

Along Lakeside, there used to be more than 200 restaurants and bars. Many had been shuttered, but with the return of Nepali tourists, a few have reopened. “We see a glimmer of hope as visitors have started to return to Pokhara,” says Laxman Baral of the Restaurant and Bar Association of Nepal (REBAN, Pokhara).

Small clothing and handicraft shop owners at Lakeside note that although domestic tourists do not splurge as much as their foreign counterparts, the purchases are crucial to keep them afloat. Taxi owners like Keshav Raj Baral now makes only five local sightseeing trips, but says there are Nepalis who book his car for the whole day.

Mt Machapuchre (6,990m) from Sarangkot. Photos: Niranjan Shrestha

Live music still floats out of numerous bars and restaurants during the evening, but the pandemic has affected Pokhara’s once-vibrant nightlife. “The business is alright during the weekends with Nepalis but there is not much traffic on weekdays,” says Yogesh Bhattarai of the popular Busy Bee bar.

Catwalk is also gearing up to open its doors. “We were closed for a year, but did not wait any longer,” says the night club’s Amrit Pahari.

Dorjee Lama’s Moondance Restaurant reopened after the lockdown and has been operating with less than 10 staff. He says that although the pandemic wrought havoc in the restaurant business, he has not given up hope. “We survived an insurgency and an economic blockade, so this crisis doesn’t faze us,” says Lama, expressing Pokhara’s indomitable spirit. “We see the hope of brighter days.”

Although Nepali visitors have rescued businesses for now, Gopi Bhattarai of Pokhara Tourism Council says: “Because of the investment that has been made by Pokhara’s tourism entrepreneurs, it is clear that we cannot survive just on the income from domestic tourists.”


Thrills and Spills

One of the most dramatic growths in Pokhara has been in paragliding off Sarangkot and surrounding hills. There are now 60 paragliding companies which employ 350 licensed pilots. After the lockdown was lifted in September, paragliding took off as companies offered 50% discounts for Nepalis.

“There are now young Nepali tourists from Kathmandu, Chitwan, Butwal and other cities making up to 300 flights a day,” says Krishna Bhandari of the Nepal Airsports Association.

Even as the streets are emptier than usual, the skies are dotted with the colourful paragliders. Up at the jump-off point in Sarangkot, the excitement is palpable among Nepali tourists lining up to buy tickets. As he checks on his equipment in preparation of a flight, pilot Aayush Shah notes that he has seen more Nepalis lining up to paraglide lately than before the pandemic.

Nepalis have been attracted by discounts for flights. Says Krishna Bhandari, “Usually, Nepalis make up 30% of the total paragliders annually, this year it is 100%.”

Paragliding companies did a total of 800 flights a day on average during the Dasain holidays after the lockdown, now it averages 300 a day.

The three ultralight companies which operate sight-seeing flights to the Annapurna from Pokhara airport have also seen an increase in interest from Nepali guests. Pokhara also has zip-line and bungee jumping, but these have not seen a tourism rebound as the other adventure sports.

HighGround Adventures gets only four to five passengers for its 1,865 meter feet zip-line but is still keeping itself operational. HighGround’s Hari Chapai says, “It is shortsighted to close down a business because of the current situation. We have to send the message that we are up and running.”

Because of social media posts, the numbers of Nepalis taking the plunge to bungee jump is picking up. “We have introduced the tandem jump after the lockdown targeting domestic tourists,” says HighGround’s Dinesh Maharjan. “The response has been very encouraging.”


Hike Hype

Dog on the Mardi Ridge Trek. Photo: Tulsi Rauniyar

Nepal Tourism Board has used the pandemic period to come up with new trekking trails and destinations, including the Sikles-Tanting Trail, Kapuche Lake Trek and the Maurice Herzog Trail to North Annapurna Base Camp.

The best promotion has been Nepalis posting photos and videos of their treks to Mardi Himal, Mulde Peak, or Kapuche Lake – turning these to new destinations besides the usual Poon Hill and Ghandruk.

Indeed, Shuvabi Pradhan from Kathmandu decided it would be well worth a visit to the Gurung village of Sikles after having watched travelogues and blog posts. When a video of an avalanche at Kapuche Lake went viral last month, there was a spurt in trekkers to Sikles.

"The trails around Pokhara has a place for everyone and every adventure,” says Pradhan. “It has always been the perfect getaway location for me, be it solo or with family and friends. Since foreign travel is restricted, Nepalis are discovering Nepal.”

Kapuche Lake near Sikles is the lowest glacial lake in Nepal.

Realising this, Nepal Tourism Board is forming a Domestic Tourism Revival Committee that will work towards strategising ways to encourage domestic tourism to destinations like Pokhara. “Domestic tourism needs to be more organised. NTB’s effort will create opportunities for organized trekking and mountaineering among domestic tourists.”

There is a silver lining in the absence of international trekkers, the fact that Nepalis are venturing forth where they did not go before.

“Revenue wise, the mountain tourism industry is at a zero right now. There’s no revival, only survival,’ says Sushil Poudel, the Chairman of Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal. But he says it is encouraging to see adventurous Nepalis on the trails.

For domestic backpackers, the pandemic has proven to be an opportunity to discover their country. “With the lockdown, many were seen returning to their villages and ancestral homes. Many started exploring beyond the normal trekking routes and discovered new trekking trails while showcasing them to other Nepali backpackers on social media,” says Rishav, one of the five members of Ghumante, a band of young Nepali travellers based in Pokhara.