Nepal should now allow visa on arrival
It was exactly a year ago that Nepal went into lockdown after detecting its second case of Covid-19, devastating the tourism industry and impacting the economy. But despite a falling infection rate and the arrival of vaccines, the government has been slow to reopen tourism and restore the livelihoods of millions of Nepalis.
Instead of resuming visa on arrival, for instance, the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation and the Department of Immigration have a cumbersome and confusing process in place that is deterring all but the most determined travellers.
Although Nepal Tourism Board announced last week that recommendation letters for visas can now come from any entity in Nepal (not just trekking and mountaineering agencies) visitors still need visas before travelling, PCR negative test results, paid-for 7-day hotel quarantine in Kathmandu, $5,000 in insurance, and a second PCR at the end of quarantine.
“There has been no clear announcement on vaccinated passengers, the visa requirement is arbitrary and no one is checking about quarantines,” says one travel trade executive. “The rules sound very strict, and that is keeping prospective tourists away.”
Already, 500,000 Nepalis have got their first jabs of the Covishield vaccines, and another 2 million are expected to have both doses by May. While international airlines and some countries are issuing vaccine passes, the Nepal government says it is waiting for clear international guidelines.
“As of now we haven’t decided on a vaccine passport, particularly because there are now multiple variants of the coronavirus and one vaccine might not work against all of them,” says Khajrah Baral of the Covid-19 Crisis Management Centre (CCMC), adding that the World Health Organization (WHO) is yet to provide a clear-cut protocol for vaccine passports.
He adds: “It might look like there is no pandemic anymore in Nepal and life is back to normal, but let us not mistake this drop in the caseload to think that the worst is over. We have to wait to resume full international travel.”
After lukewarm response to the first phase of Nepal’s vaccination drive that saw 429,705 frontline workers take shots, the ongoing second phase aims to vaccinate 1.6 million people above 65 years from 6,000 vaccine centres across the country. This is 8.73% of Nepal’s total population.
“Once this population is covered we will start to see visible benefits of the vaccination drive,” says Shyam Raj Uprety, head of the Government Covid Vaccine Strategy.
The government is now using the first batch of the two million doses of Covishield it purchased from Serum Institute of India last month. On Sunday, Nepal received another 348,000 doses of the vaccine under the COVAX initiative. Later this month, China is also expected to donate 500,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccine.
As the vaccination drive gains speed, in Nepal and across the world (over 305 million doses have been administered so far), documentation of inoculation status will become vital to ease crossborder travel. Soon, vaccine passports might be essential for all international journeys.
On Tuesday, China became the first country to rollout Covid-19 vaccine passports that show details of inoculation and results of nucleic acid and antibody tests. Chinese citizens can now register for the certification on both digital and paper formats using a WeChat mini program.
Several countries, including Denmark and Sweden, are also said to be finalising a version of health passports even though there is no accepted international standard yet for such documents or apps. There are also ethical concerns regarding the right of people who chose not to vaccinate, or those who cannot vaccinate because of medical conditions.
Indeed, according to the Madrid-based World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), one in three destinations worldwide are completely closed to international tourism, with the emergence of new Brazil, south Africa and UK variants prompting many governments to reverse efforts to ease travel.
“As we work to restart tourism, we must recognise that restrictions are just one part of the solution,” said Zurab Polilikashvili of the WTO during a press meet this week. “Their use must be based on the latest data and analysis and consistently reviewed so as to allow for the safe and responsible restart of a sector upon which many millions of businesses and jobs depend.”
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is launching a digital travel pass later this month that will provide airlines and governments documentation of travellers’ inoculation or test result.
Qatar Airways, Emirates, Etihad Airways, Air New Zealand, Copa Airlines, RwandAir and Singapore Airlines have already signed up for the platform, with Chinese and Indian airlines registering soon.
“As a tourism dependent country that has been hit hardest, the government should introduce an immunity passport and waive quarantine for travellers possessing one,” says Prativa Pandey of CIWEC Clinic Travel Medicine Centre in Kathmandu. “Now that large chunks of the US and the EU have been vaccinated we can boost tourism by easing their entry.”
But before working on vaccine passports, industry experts say Nepal must first streamline needlessly convoluted and unenforceable entry procedures for arriving passengers. Nepal opened regular domestic flights in September last year, and passenger volume has surpassed pre-Covid levels. However, arrival restrictions have meant that tourist traffic is still stagnant.
In February, 9,146 foreigners arrived in Kathmandu by air – less than 10% of pre-pandemic figures for the month. Of these, most were Indians, followed by Chinese, Americans and Europeans.
Nepal’s hospitality industry was expecting steady growth in numbers by the spring trekking season, and trade officials had been lobbying for visa on arrival and reduced quarantine times which the government, mired in a political crisis, has ignored.
Foreigners flying to Nepal still need a visa before arrival from an embassy abroad or pre-approval or recommendation letter a travel agency or government department. All travellers must have Covid-19 negative test result obtained within 72 hours prior to departure. Passengers are also subjected to seven days of hotel quarantine at their own cost, 10 for those coming in from countries with a variant strain.
“We have to make our travel procedures as hassle free as possible to boost arrivals. And there is no point of quarantine if it isn’t even monitored and tourists are instead spending that time in Pokhara or Chitwan,” says Pandey.
Meanwhile, Safe Nepal Travel, a project supported by the National Geographic Society has launched a website to revive trekking and climbing tourism in Nepal. In the next two months, the site will provide readers latest guidelines from WHO, Nepal government, hospitals and the travel industry in Kathmandu.
Says Alton C Byers of Safe Nepal Travel: “Through the provision of timely and reliable information related to safe trekking, climbing, travel, and safety protocols, we hope to facilitate the return of adventure tourism to Nepal as soon as possible.”