More stranded tourists evacuated from Nepal

HIMALAYAN AIRLIFT: A Qatar Airways Airbus330 takes off from Kathmandu on Saturday with European tourists stranded after Nepal’s COVID-19 lockdown. Photo: MANISH PAUDEL

Five days after Nepal went into a nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, a bulk of the tourists stranded in the Mt Everest region are finally being evacuated to Kathmandu for flights back home.

There were two flights by Tara Air 16-seat Viking Twin Otters on Thursday and Friday from Lukla airfield, but the evacuation picked up momentum on Saturday with Nepal Airlines and Summit Air conducting at least ten ferry flights to Kathmandu.

Tara Air in Lukla Airport. All Photos: KUNDA DIXIT

The Australian, British, French, Swiss and American embassies in Kathmandu have been the most active in rescuing their nationals who were up in the mountains when Nepal suddenly announced a lockdown from 16-31 March – grounding all domestic and international flights and putting public transport off the roads. The curfew is expected to be extended to mid-April.

There were an estimated 400 trekkers and climbers in the Everest region, but trekkers were also stranded in the Annapurna and Manaslu circuits as well as Langtang. There are said to be about 800 tourists still in the Pokhara area, and the Nepal Tourism Board
estimated that there were 10,000 tourists in Nepal when the lockdown was announced last Tuesday.

The weather was looking iffy in Lukla early morning Saturday, but the ferry flights managed to dodge cloud buildup over Lamjura Pass to conduct the flights, pilots said. Some helicopter charters also flew up the Everest trail to rescue trekkers.

Notice posted by Nepal Tourism Board regarding tourists stranded in Pokhara.

Yeti Airlines and Buddha Air deployed their ATR72s on Thursday and Friday to bring French, Swiss and other European tourists from the Annapurna area, and more flights are being arranged on Saturday.

The British Embassy has asked its nationals in various parts of Nepal to send information for possible rescue. It also arranged an escorted bus that departed Pokhara at 8AM Saturday to bring tourists by road to Kathmandu.

The evacuation flights were delayed because of the need to arrange lodgings in Kathmandu, and negotiate ferry flights out to the final destination of the tourists. International airlines have to fly in empty to Kathmandu because of the lockdown.

There were also bureaucratic delays caused by coordination between various ministries. The Nepal government has come under criticism for not paying as much attention to
Nepalis who are also stranded in the mountains. Trekking guides and porters have also been stuck in Lukla and various other climbing routes.

“We have been working with the embassies and various ministries to help the tourists, and are taking all the health precautions to fly them out by allowing special charter flights so that they can be with their families,” said Dhananjay Regmi, CEO of Nepal
Tourism Board.

Qatar Airways in the only airline still making ferry flights, and carried out 600 mainly French and German tourists from Kathmandu to Doha on Airbus330 aircraft on Thursday and Friday. Another flight arrived on Saturday to take stranded Australians
back home via Doha.

Australian Ambassador Peter Budd posted on the Facebook public group Australians Stranded in Nepal that Australian nationals would have first priority, New Zealanders after that, and he also disclosed that if there were seats available his wife and some
embassy staff would also be on the flight.

There have been concerns about the high cost of one-way tickets, and Budd posted: ‘We have tried to achieve economies of scale by securing the largest possible aircraft …The reality is that aircraft entering Nepal are not permitted to carry passengers. In all
likelihood, once arrived in Sydney, the aircraft will also have to return to Doha empty. This adds to the cost.’

Faced with a crisis of medical equipment for its hospitals for a future outbreak, the government is sending a Nepal Airline Airbus 330 to Guangzhou on Saturday to bring the items.

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