Call to ease entry of tourists to Nepal

Tourists in Kathmandu

Nepal’s tourism industry has come down heavily on the government for not streamlining the process for entry of foreign visitors even after four months of opening the sector to limited arrivals.

After not getting the desired response from the government despite making numerous requests, 51 companies representing hotels, restaurants and trekking agencies have now taken to the streets near the prime minister’s office in Baluwatar to press their demands.

Even the head of the Nepal Tourism Board is impatient with the government’s confusing and contradictory immigration and health rules. He told Nepali Times: “The government is not listening to the experts, and takes unclear and ad hoc decisions which just creates obstacles for those who really want to visit Nepal in 2021.”

Nepal and India have seen a drastic drop in the daily Covid-19 infection rate, and for the third 24-hour period last week, there were no deaths due to the coronavirus in Nepal. And with the arrival of the vaccine,  the hospitality industry feels the time is right to ease the entry process and make it less bureaucratic.

The hospitality sector feels that despite opening up to trekkers and mountaineers in October, Nepal’s immigration, health, tourism and security agencies have not been able coordinate policy so that foreigners can get visa on arrival, reduce quarantine times, and remove other red tape.

The number of tourist arrivals, which had been nearly zero since March 2020, started picking up to reach nearly 10,000 in December, but in January it dropped to 8,800. Airlines and hotels blame the sluggish arrival figures on the lack of clarity and on complicated entry procedures.

Covid tourist infograph

Foreigners can fly to Nepal, but need a visa before arrival from an embassy abroad, although tour groups with connections can get visa on arrival if their company makes a request. This leaves a lot of room for ad hoc decisions, and confusion at check-in since international airlines flying to Nepal are not apprised of the exact rules.

Passengers also need to show reservation at a designated hotel for one week quarantine, and this duration is 10 days if visitors are arriving from countries that are on the government’s list of countries with new strains of the coronavirus. With the new strain now spreading worldwide, experts say this rule is outdated and meaningless.

Passengers already arrive with a negative PCR test done 72 hours before flying, and the travel trade wants tourists to be able to get another RT-PCR test on arrival at Kathmandu airport and if the result is negative, to be allowed to go to their destinations within Nepal.

They say this the way it is done in other tourism-dependent countries. They also want visa on arrival to be reinstated for those who are vaccinated, and the PCR negative window to be widened to 96 hours before departures from 72 hours.

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Manaslu trek

“The quarantine requirement is a joke,” one airline executive said. “There is no one to check if they actually go to a hotel and stay for a week. The requirement is only keeping visitors eager to come to Nepal away for no reason at all.”

The Nepal Tourism Board with recommendation from the travel trade had drawn up a more relaxed ‘Visitor Protocol’ and submitted it to the Ministry of Tourism and Civil Aviation on 21 January. There was an expectation that the proposal would be implemented at least in part, but the Ministry rejected the proposal. It also did not agree with a ‘travel bubble’ arrangement so Indian tourists could freely enter Nepal.

Facing huge debt and tax burden, investors in the tourism sector were already angry with the government for not agreeing to a relief and stimulus package. The Ministry rejection of the proposal to ease travel has poured oil on the fire. More than a million Nepalis are directly employed in the tourism sector, and the country earned more than $800 million from the sector in 2019.

“This is crazy. At a time when we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine, the government is trying its best to discourage tourism,” says Achyut Guragain of the Nepal Association of Tour and Travel Agents (NATTA). “That is why we have no other option but to take to the streets to press our demands.”

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Tourists at Chandragiri

Binayak Shah of the Hotel Association Nepal (HAN) agrees. He says hotels are starting to get inquiries from tourists planning to visit Nepal in spring and autumn season, but they are turned off by the convoluted and confusing requirements.

“Most tourists from Europe or North America are not yet ready to take a long-distance flight, but there is a lot of potential for visitors from neighbouring India, China and other South Asian countries if the process was easier,” Shah says.

To be sure, the government has gone some way in easing restrictions. For example, a person with a vaccine certificate will no longer have to show a PCR negative report before boarding a flight to Nepal. But the rule is not clear what happens after arrival in Kathmandu, whether a quarantine is required or not.

Says Pradip Kumar Koirala of the Ministry of Tourism, “We are not trying to discourage tourists, we are just trying to ensure that public health is protected.”

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