Didn’t Visit Nepal Year 2020

Sunrise near Phaplu in Solu Khumbu after snowfall in January just before Nepal was closed off for tourists. Photo: MANISH PAUDEL

It was Nepal’s misfortune that all the expensive preparations for Visit Nepal 2020, during which the country hoped to attract a record 2 million visitors, have gone to waste because of the Covid-19 crisis.

For five months now, regular international domestic flights have been grounded. Kathmandu airport is scheduled to reopen for limited regular flights next week, but may not be fully operational at least till early next year. Trekking trails are all empty and there were no crowds on the south side of Mt Everest this spring.  

Nepal's tourism industry is on the brink of collapse. Some restaurants and bars that opened after the 21 July easing are closed again. Some hotels are getting business from being turned into quarantine centres, but trekking and mountaineering agencies, airlines, tourist bus companies, cable car operators, safari resorts, handicraft vendors are all on the brink of collapse.

"Hotels have been very badly hit, and business is expected to shrink from 7.33% growth to a startling negative 16.3% decline in 2019/2020," says Shreejana Rana, president of the Hotel Association of Nepal (HAN). Most hotels are keeping staff with reduced pay, but 25% of employees have been laid off.

With more than $700 million in annual earnings, tourism makes up an equivalent of 8% of Nepal’s GDP. It employs 500,000 people directly just in trekking and mountaineering, with 2 million others benefiting from tourism indirectly. For the government, there is a loss of revenue from taxes, mountain climbing fees, and national parks have lost income they used to plough into conservation work.

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Nepal’s domestic airlines used to charge foreigners higher ‘dollar fares’ than locals, and it made up to 40% of the revenue for airlines like Tara Air with which they used to subsidise Nepalis flying to remote areas. The Tourism Ministry announced this week that it was scrapping the two-tier fares, enraging airline operators who are already reeling from the five-month lockdown.  

Yankila Sherpa, former Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation, is now managing director of Snow Leopard Trek which specialises in high-value treks for 300 clients per year from the US, Europe and Southeast Asia. “We have had to lay off all our field staff,” Sherpa says.

Deserted Kathmandu airport. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

Some 15% of the 1.2 million tourists who visited Nepal last year said they were going on treks or mountaineering expeditions. Porters, cooks and trekking staff lost out in the spring season. Many who used to then go to Ladakh during the monsoon to work on treks there could not this year. And now it looks like the autumn season is nixed as well.

But it need not be like this. Some companies involved in trekking say it makes no sense to close off trekking and mountaineering if other visitors are being allowed from 1 September.

“They have to get PCR negative tests before getting on a plane anyway, why not let tourists come and go up to the mountains? OK, if you want, give them another PCR test here and get them to quarantine for a few days in Kathmandu,” says one international tourism operative.   

Yankila Sherpa agrees: “Nepal’s mountains are the safest places in the world right now, and people long to return. I am confident that tourism will resume in a different way.”

For now, Ministry of Tourism projects that Nepal stands to lose at least $400 million this year from visitors. But in terms of jobs and livelihoods, the loss is incalculable. And it affects downstream sectors like construction and the products needed for it like cement, steel rods, fixtures, plumbing, wiring, transportation.   

Dhruba Kumar Subedi of Koshi Tours and Travels, explains, "The tourism industry actually benefitted a whole range of businesses from construction of new hotels and infrastructure, agriculture, poultry farming, laundry services. So, the economic cost of Covid-19 will be disastrous and multi-sectoral."

Nepal had been gearing up for Visit Nepal 2020 all of last year with promotional campaigns in European, Indian and Chinese markets.

The drive was kicked off amidst huge fanfare on 1 January, 2020 at the Dasrath Stadium in Kathmandu with helicopter fly pasts.

The NVY 2020 secretariat organised other lavish events such as a fashion runway at Kala Pattar below Mt Everest, ice-skating in Gokyo, and commissioned artists to paint huge fiberglass yetis and placed them at key locations in Kathmandu. However, the campaign was criticised for not focusing on promotions in source countries for tourism, and even because some of the painted yetis hurting religious sentiments.  

Ice skating in Gokyo.
The Visit Nepal 2020 yeti mascot was met with criticism and some outrage. Photo: MONIKA DEUPALA

The campaign had a budget of Rs650 million, and aimed to nearly double the number of tourists in 2020. As the pandemic spread across China and Europe, it was officially called off in March. Some of the yetis are still around, and Nepal Airlines still carries the Visit Nepal 2020 logo emblazoned on the sides of its Airbuses that have become like parodies.

The pandemic affected many mountaineering expeditions, including ones to Mt Everest, that had to abandon their climbs halfway. International conferences on eco-tourism, climate change and the travel industry had to be cancelled.

Shree Gurung of Party Nepal Event Management and Media Company, planned to take 10 YouTubers and influencers from 7 continents to Mt Everest Base Camp for a ‘World Vlogging Challenge’.

“Everyone tried to come up with new perspectives to make VNY 2020 grand. Investments were made, events and expeditions were planned, but we are now in a limbo," Gurung says.

Experts now fear that the Covid-19 crisis will result in another exodus of Nepal’s tourism workforce abroad, as happened during the conflict years. In fact, the impact of the pandemic on Nepal’s trekking and tourism is much worse than the war, earthquake and Blockade.

With over 15% of Nepal’s population working abroad and 28% of the country’s GDP made up by remittance, Nepal ranks 2nd in Asia after Kazakhstan in terms of its reliance on the money sent home by its migrant workers abroad. This reliance on migration is expected to grow in the post-pandemic era.

One-way ticket home for overseas Nepali workers, Upasana Khadka

Phewa Lake in Pokhara awaits tourists. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

But jobs in the service and tourism sectors have collapsed even in countries where Nepalis are traditionally migrated for work. The Nepal Association of Foreign Employment Agencies says that 10%-30% of migrant workers in the Gulf countries and Malaysia have lost their jobs. It expects about 500,000 to return to Nepal soon.

But there are also opportunities hidden in this crisis. If it plays its cards right, Nepal's tourism industry could expand its workforce, and use it to serve a COVID-customised strategy. 

Says Shreejana Rana, "Given the international restrictions on travel and the current scenario, we don't think things will be back to normal before August 2021, so we must focus on domestic tourism.”

Indeed, after being cooped up for nearly half a year, there will be pent-up demand for travel among Nepal’s urban residents. During past crises, it was Nepali visitors that kept the hotels, restaurants and bars open in Pokhara and other destinations. 

The travel industry is now crossing fingers that limited in-country travel will be allowed in the next month so that Nepalis will explore Nepal during the Dasain-Tihar holidays.   

But Dhruba Kumar Subedi of Koshi Tours and Travels is not so optimistic. “While we do cater to international tourists, most of our business was actually from Nepali clients taking vacations during Dasain. This year, we are completely shut down."

Read also:“Survive 2020, revive in 2021 and thrive in 2022”, Alisha Sijapati

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