Pokhara’s desperation and hope

Pokhara’s tourism revival depends on residents and entrepreneurs understanding the treasure they own

The first flights from Kathmandu on 1 January 2023 when Pokhara's new international airport was inaugurated. The Yeti Airline ATR-72 seen here is 9N-ANC, the same one that crashed two weeks later. Photo: RSS

Pokhara is where so much of Nepal’s tourism prospects rest, with its lakes, proximate Himalaya, indigenous culture, adventure sports, unique geographical setting, and enchanting geology.

Residents look to riding Pokhara’s placement and possibilities to achieve prosperity. The past has shown the future, provided there is proper stewardship of this unique place.

But the 15 January air crash of Yeti Airlines that took 72 lives was a blow at a time when tourism was in revival. This was the biggest air crash ever of a national airline in terms of lives lost, and its worldwide publicity combined to devastate prospects of Pokhara’s new airport inaugurated just two weeks previously. It was a blow to a country already in the European Commission’s black list for poor civil aviation oversight.

Boat owners on Lake Phewa are dejected, many eateries and businesses along Lakeside are shuttered, one Pokhara hotel lost Rs6 million in business in the month following the crash. If the roads were good, Pokhara could recoup with domestic tourists, but approach highways are horror stories. 

Pokhara used to be the staging ground for trekkers, but tourism has declined with the expansion of the road network. Over the years, the kind of urban blight that defines Kathmandu Valley has overtaken the city as well. The natural terraces that define the valley floor are no longer visible.

The Yeti aircraft crashed right into the narrow and serpentine Seti Gorge; this unique canyon is no longer touted as a tourist attraction amidst the concrete sprawl.

For all the hype surrounding its opening, we cannot call Pokhara’s new aerodrome an ‘international airport’ as long as it only serves domestic flights. Kathmandu has been lax in economic diplomacy to get cross-border flights to Pokhara.

A calibration flight was conducted successfully before the airport was inaugurated, yet there is no explanation as to why instrumental landing system has not been in activity, which would also allow night flights.

For decades, the old airport had been in use without incident as far as the Kathmandu-Pokhara trunk route was concerned, even though aircraft were required to take a sharp starboard turn just before landing. The very aircraft that carried out the inauguration flight with the same captain was the one that came down on 15 January. The co-pilot was wife of the pilot of a Tara Air aircraft that stalled while banking left into landing in Jumla 15 years ago, and a left bank stall was what took her life and that of 71 others over Pokhara. The preliminary crash report says the propellers of both engines were found to have been feathered seconds before, and we need to know why the pilots did that.

Regardless of the economic and social costs of the Yet Airlines disaster, the national media and social media did not dwell long over the Seti canyon. The sell-immolation by frustrated entrepreneur Prem Prasad Acharya on 24 January even as the Prime Minister’s motorcade exited Parliament grabbed attention. Even before the intense focus on the public suicide had subsided, the citizenship issue of then Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane reverberated across the national psyche, and thereafter the national concentration has been on the selection of the new President of the Republic.

The Yeti crash was a blow to Nepal’s national economy as a whole, at a time when tourism as a mainstay was struggling to revive. In Pokhara, like elsewhere, the industry was finally recovering from the decade of conflict and political instability, followed by the April 2015 Gorkha Earthquake, which was trailed by the Indian blockade – and then came the back-to-back disasters of Covid and Dengue.

Chinese tourists had started arriving in large numbers in the mid-2000s, and before long Pokhara was full of signage and restaurant menus in Mandarin. But the Chinese have stayed away, and even President Xi Jinping’s declaration during banquet address at Shital Niwas in October 2019 that Nepal was where Chinese citizens most wanted to visit among all South Asian countries has not helped in a revival of arrivals.

Beijing has not included Nepal in its January list of 20 ‘approved destinations’ for Chinese travelers after its Covid closures of 2022. However, the list includes nearby Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

It is no exaggeration to say that Pokhara is one of the finest attractions for tourists in all of Asia, and the reasons are many. Sub-tropical Pokhara Valley is 300m lower than Kathmandu and sits less than 50km from the semicircle of the Annapurnas. The steep viewing gradient that makes visitors gasp is Pokhara’s primary attraction, and the reflection of Machapuchre on Phewa Lake has been the stuff of postcards for decades.

The geology of Pokhara is wondrous even if the tourism brochures pay no attention to it: massive lake outburst floods in historical time brought up to 5 cubic km of rock and debris down the Seti River, encasing the hills and dales like a viscous fluid.

The earlier mid-montane hilltops ended up as ‘islands’ on Pokhara’s plains, Phewa and other lakes were formed when side rivers were blocked. The exceptional ‘natural terraces’ of Pokhara's debris plain were carved by water and gravity, and the Seti ultimately made its way across the plateau through a labyrinthine gorge cut through the boulders.

Locals would do well to study the work of Harka Gurung, the multi-disciplinary scholar who studied and wrote on geography, anthropology, ecology, mountaineering, migration, and had a special place in his heart and mind for Pokhara Valley, the subject of his 1965 PhD thesis from the University of Edinburgh. He was also the person behind the International Mountain Museum at Rato Pairo, one of the few genuine attractions created in Pokhara over the modern era.

Pokhara is the meeting ground of the Magar and Gurung communities, with their unique heritage that includes the mesmerising and meditative ghatu naach. The valley is further enriched by its mix of communities including the Newa of the bazars, the Bote fisherfolk and Gaine troubadours, the Thakali from up north who have sunk roots here, and the Chhetri and Bahun. Tibetan refugees were residents after the 1950s, but their presence is now much diluted.

The environs of Pokhara are a bird-watcher’s paradise, and up below Machapuchre is a hill flank set aside as a pheasant sanctuary with five species. The promenade by the lake, boat excursions, eateries and tourist services have helped evolve a sophisticated ambience that South Asians travelers in particular find inviting. The café culture, the warmer climes of the relatively low valley, and quick escape to nearby  mountains has made Pokhara a cosmopolitan destination even for Kathmandu's recreation-minded.

‘Trekking’ was a term whose modern meaning evolved in Nepal in the 1960s-70s under the stewardship of outfitters such as Col Jimmy Roberts and Mike Cheney. Pokhara was a staging point for treks to Jomsom and Mustang up the Kali Gandaki, ‘round Annapurna’ and down to Manang, straight into Annapurna Sanctuary, as well as midhill treks to places like Ghandrung, Sikles and Poon Hill.

The road-building boom since the mid-2000s pulled the rug from underneath the trekking industry, with the roads mostly overlapping the trekking trails, and Pokhara was the most affected.

For Pokhara to do good for itself and to benefit the national economy, it must understand the value of the prize it holds in its hand. It can start by plumbing the depths of history, geography and mountain lore related to the locale, with school children taught to distinguish between the peaks of the Annapurna range beyond Machapuchre – Gangapurna, Annapurna South, Annapurna II and of course the summit ridge of Annapurna I – to read up on Maurice Herzog as the first climber of a 8000m peak in 1950, or learn the geology that delivered ammonite (saligram) on the Kali Gandaki defile.

Pokhara must protect its lakes from pollution and encroachment. The competition to place ever-taller statues and view-towers on hilltops is actually the path to hell, they attract picnickers rather than well-paying tourists, and distract from the indigenous culture and himal views that lie at the heart of what it means to come to Pokhara. Why not view platforms rather than view-towers?

Let the homestays be welcoming for their warmth and comfort, rather than sheds masquerading as hospitality places. Respecting its own cultural depth, Pokhrelis should not let ghatu be the stuff of dohori restaurants, and require travelers to visit villages at appointed dates to watch performances in the community setting.

For the sake of history, some of the simal dugout canoes must be retained on the Phewa amidst the rowboats and paddle platforms. The song-and-dance sequence from Maitighar film shot in 1966 must be studied for its adoration of Pokhara (‘Basanta nai basna khojchha yahan lolayera…’) and used to project what the valley has to offer.

Let us remember Dharma Raj Thapa, who propagated Pokhara-based folk singing sensibility throughout the land. The great Pokhara panorama by Toni Hagen in his pioneer 1960 work Nepal: The Kingdom in the Himalayas must be put to better use, as also photographs of the DC-3s parked by the great pipal tree that used to serve as the terminal of old Pokhara airport.

It should not be difficult for Pokhara’s tourism entrepreneurs to wage a campaign to bring visitors from within flying range of narrow-body Boeing 737s, Airbus 320s that the airport can handle. This means marketing forays to Dhaka, Colombo, Lahore, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad. Also Chengdu, Kunming, Lhasa and Ulaanbaatar. Start with chartered flights before moving on to scheduled ones, but first pressure Kathmandu authorities for customs and immigration desks. The grand hang-gliding from Sarangkot allowing circles over Phewa Lake has been discontinued due to the new international airport, and the adventure travel companies need to quickly relocate to retain Pokhara's place as an international centre for the sport.

Pokhara must push self-centric Kathmandu to wake up to the evolving needs of national tourism, such as the urgency for sub-regional understanding between India, Pakistan and Nepal to prevent the Indus-Ganga haze – which among other things is helping obliterate Himalayan views. The cost to tourism of soiled mountain vistas has not yet been calculated.

Pokhara seems to be losing its charms before it gets to even fully understand them, as the city begins to urbanise. The fully empowered local government must develop a sewage system. As the capital of Gandaki Province, Pokhara must work on revival of surrounding farmlands to prevent the terraces from reverting to jungle.

Many of the ‘hilltop islands’ on the Pokhara plain have been mined for stone, and one has just been decapitated to allow better approach to the new airport. The concrete jungle is covering up the Seti terraces. And there are harebrained ideas aplenty beyond more and taller hilltop statues – such as a local hotelier’s campaign to have Begnas Lake empty into Rupa Lake through a tunnel in order to create a waterfall. As if Pokhara needed additional attractions rather than nurture and project the heritage it commands.

One identity marker of Pokhara used to be walls made of boulders and ubiquitous chautari of bar-pipal, but mostly they have not been preserved. Built as it is on a massive sea of stones and boulders, Pokhara must be attentive to seismologists’ warnings of the great earthquake that has been pending for 500 years along the western Nepal seismic gap.

There are two large spaces in the centre of Pokhara’s urbanism that need to be kept open and un-encroached. Ratna Mandir, the royal estate on the banks of the Phewa, is an arboreal gem whose gates should be opened to the citizens and tourists alike. It will provide continuity to the lakeside walkway and add incredible texture to the Pokhara Experience, but already there are signs of encroachment – a military hospital has opened gates on one side, and the grove of trees that hosted hundreds of egrets by the lake shore has just been summarily chopped down. Whoever thought of that, and why?

The prize that everyone is going to fight over is the old airport grounds. Most likely it will be apportioned between government entities and/or leased out to private developers in decades-long leases. Rather than such an abominable solution, Pokhara needs to decide on a ‘central park’, a large swathe of green within the urbanised valley. Only those with little imagination will be unable to see what an economic boon it would be for Pokhara, already attractive to the world, to have such a space.

The old airport was small, but it had charm, and it was a less than ten minute drive from Lakeside. It had possibly the finest restaurant terrace in the world, providing views of the runway as well as the Annapurna ramparts. The new airport terminal resolutely turns away from the Himalaya, is an hour away from lakeside, and no restaurant seems to have been planned, with or without a view.

Amidst the dislocating changes, Pokhara must take heart that the lakes will remain as will the mountains, even though the volume of snow and ice may reduce due climate change. And no one can take away the location. In fact, Pokhara is part of a touristic continuum that starts with Lumbini and Kapilvastu to the south, and the Kali Gandaki valley that leads right up to the Lo Manthang and the Tibetan plateau.

Pokhara’s residents and planners must look to the future by incorporating the mindset that their valley is the true geographical mid-point of Nepal. Since historical time through the Panchayat era, down to the present, Kathmandu has perceived itself as the east-west centre of the country, and so the ‘Central Development Region’ was established in what was obviously the east.

While Kathmandu was and remains the power centre, however, true geographical, demographic and economic balance is achieved at the Pokhara-Narayanghat longitude, and this scientific reality must help guide not just tourism, but equity-based economic planning. When the time comes that Pokhara understands its place and placement, we will all be richer. When Pokhara understands its riches and wonders, it will be appropriate to have a touristic slogan for worldwide marketing – simply put, ‘Only Pokhara’.