Let’s call off Visit Nepal Year 2020

Fewa lake in Pokhara. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

Earlier this month, Nepal declared what every country wishes it could say with confidence: ‘Nepal is coronavirus free’. It first came from the Prime Minister, who said the virus had entered Nepal but had since “gone away”.

Then, Tourism Minister Yogesh Bhattarai took it one step further. He declared Nepal a ‘Coronavirus Free Zone’, adding that would be Visit Nepal Year 2020’s promotion pitch to attract Chinese tourists to salvage the spring tourist season.

Within a week of that announcement, Covid-19 has gone global. The Oxford Journal of Travel Medicine predicts Nepal is now one of the top 15 destinations where the next outbreak is predicted. Nothing could make that a self-fulfilling prophecy happen than opening Nepal’s doors wide for tourists from Asia and Europe.

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To cap off a ‘corona free month’ the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) on 26 February published an upbeat notice declaring Nepal safe from Covid-19 and urged visitors not to cancel their visits.

It may be more prudent for the government to terminate the controversial VNY2020 campaign and revert to its evergreen #VisitNepal. This way, it can focus on strict health surveillance at the airport, improve infrastructure, clean up the cities and promote domestic tourism.

The Tourism Minister and NTB have shown a dangerous lack of understanding of what the coronavirus epidemic can mean. It also shows an approach in which the interest in assuring outsiders will be safe in Nepal is greater than ensuring Nepalis remain safe from outsiders.

The top ten countries from where Nepal gets tourists are on high alert. India is screening passengers arriving from Kathmandu. Most countries have issued travel advisories for people traveling to and from China. Thailand’s health minister discourages travel abroad, saying 'It could be your last holiday.' South Korea is in complete crisis mode due to the rapidly growing outbreak. There are 100,000 Nepalis working there.

Japan is considering cancelling the 2020 Olympics. Saudi Arabia has suspended foreign pilgrimages into the country for the Hajj. America has told citizens to plan for potential closing of schools and businesses. Countries are racing to take extraordinary steps to limit any unnecessary risks.

Why is Nepal insisting on the opposite? If Nepal is Covid-19 infection free, it is out of pure luck. Continuing with VNY2020 effort would test that luck to a dangerous extreme. The Italian outbreak that is spreading across Europe at a faster rate than in China began with just one Italian man.

While all of China’s provinces have reported infections, more than 16,000 Chinese tourists have entered Nepal through Tribhuvan International Airport since January, of which more than 3,000 arrived in the first three weeks of February.

The two sick Chinese nationals in Pokhara who were asked to stay under surveillance this month went into hiding and could not be traced. A Saudi Arabian tourist who arrived in Nepal via China also ran away from a Kathmandu Hospital where he was being monitored. Pokhara, is a top destination for Chinese tourists, and tens of thousands of Nepalis will converge there in April for the Nepali New Year holiday.

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It can take as long as 24 days for symptoms of Covid-19 to appear. Tourists spend an average of 12 to 14 days in Nepal, most visit a shared list of sites. They converge in Thamel, the capital’s tourist hub located near Kathmandu’s ‘Chinatown.’

Hotels and airlines in Nepal have seen cancellations after the outbreak. Spring mountaineering expeditions are in doubt, and the trekking season is at risk. Experts warn that even if the outbreak weakens due to warmer weather, it could resurface later in the year. An outbreak in Nepal this spring could kill not only the fall season, it could even risk tourism in 2021.

Some have argued this is just another flu variant with low fatality rate so far, and there’s a good chance it will just be in most people’s systems for the foreseeable future, implying there is not anything to be scared of as such. Nepal’s poor responses to outbreaks in the past and its weak public health care system gives all the more reason to keep the virus away.

Now that the ITB Berlin Travel Trade Show, the biggest in the tourism industry to be held in March has been cancelled due to coronavirus outbreak, Nepal government should formally drop VNY2020 agenda and focus simply on promoting ‘Visit Nepal’.

The Covid-19 outbreak is having serious impact on the world economy. The United States stock markets are seeing historic lows not seen since the 2008 recession. China’s economic growth is looking shaky. The chain reaction of a global economic slowdown does not bode well for Nepal’s tourism, and could also affect outbound Nepali tourism. The remittance-based economy could take a serious hit if this becomes a pandemic.

The VNY2020 campaign has been criticised for sloppy promotion abroad, and even before this outbreak, few believed the 2 million target could be met. The Covid-19 outbreak provides just the right justification to terminate this ill-planned campaign.  This would buy Nepal’s planners time to prepare better with promotion and upgrading infrastructure for a more meaningful campaign.