Long road back to Shangrila

Look east : Sunrise near Phaplu in Solu Khumbu after recent snowfall. Photo : MANISH PAUDEL

Ever since Time magazine printed a story in 1992 titled ‘Goodbye Shangrila’, Nepal’s travel trade and government have tried to clean up the country’s international image.

Visitor arrivals plummeted during the conflict years, and even after the ceasefire there was negative publicity about the instability, strikes and shutdowns. The earthquake and the Blockade also hit tourism hard.

But Nepal is such a solid brand, and such a unique tourism product, that visitor numbers are picking up again. Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada is credited with picking the target of 2 million as a way to revive income from tourism to help balance Nepal’s growing trade deficit.

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In the 1980s, tourism made up 22% of Nepal’s GDP. It now contributes only 4%, not necessarily because tourism is down, but because other sectors like remittances and trade have grown. Under Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari, 2020 was chosen to promote Nepal internationally so that we could reach the magic 2 million figure.

But Adhikari was killed in a helicopter crash last year, and travel trade executives say promotion activities have not been effective enough. President Bidya Devi Bhandari inaugurated Visit Nepal Year 2020 at Kathmandu’s main stadium on 1 January with fireworks and a flypast of military helicopters. But critics said the money would have been better spent on promotion abroad.

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Instead of promoting Nepal within Nepal, the government should have cleaned up Nepal. The country’s image has suffered lately because of social media posts by visitors shocked by Kathmandu’s squalour and pollution.

Tourism Minister Yogesh Bhattarai has been ridiculed in social media for visiting Sydney this week, in the middle of a bushfire emergency, to promote Nepal. The government has also run into flak for a daft proposal to mandate very Nepali worker flying out to wear Visit Nepal t-shirts and caps.

Bhattarai admits that airports need to be upgraded and service improved. But he adds: “There have been improvements at Kathmandu Airport, we are taking steps to make the travel experience more pleasant.”

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The travel industry says the emphasis should be on making a Nepal trip as convenient as possible for visitors by streamlining the airport, its tedious visa-on-arrival process, and sprucing up the country’s crumbling infrastructure. There should also be a moratorium on excavators digging roads over trekking trails. The other deterrent is that Nepal is an expensive place to travel to because the price of aviation fuel here is double that in other airports in the region.

Says hotelier Yogendra Shakya: “Nepal is ideally placed to tap the vast tourism potential from India, China and Southeast Asia, and promotion should focus there first.”