Nepal hopes for tourism rebound in 2021

Lukla used to see up to 35 flights full of tourists daily till March 2020. This year there are only 2-3 flights a day, with mostly locals. Photo: KUNDA DIXIT

The availability of Covid-19 vaccines, a recent decrease in fatality rates in India and Nepal, and inquiries from travelers seeking to get out into the Himalayan wilderness, have raised hopes of a rebound in Nepal’s tourism industry in 2021.

However, travel trade insiders say the numbers will only pick up if Nepal’s tourism authorities are proactive about promoting Nepal as a safe destination, and if the byzantine rules for visas and quarantines are clarified and eased.

However, some of that optimism has been tempered by a new resurgence of the coronavirus in Europe and Southeast Asia, as well as sustained high levels of infection in the United States.  

“We had a German group booked for an Annapurna Base Camp trek in February, but when they found out that they had to spend a week in quarantine in a hotel in Kathmandu, they cancelled,” said one trekking agency owner who has not had a single group for one year now.

Although few question the need for quarantines, there is a feeling that with double PCR tests on arrival and after quarantine, the period can be reduced to four days.

Then there are the confusing rules about visas. Nepal has cancelled on-arrival visas, although in some cases tourists have been allowed in if their tour agent supplies proper documentation beforehand. The rules are neither clear, not consistently applied.

Present rules stipulate that foreigners coming to Nepal have to get visas before they come, have a PCR test 72 hours before the flight, $5,000 insurance, a 7 day reservation at a designated hotel in Kathmandu, and a return ticket. Citizens of countries where there are no Nepal embassies have to send their passports to the nearest capital with one.

However, if a trekking agent with enough connections can organise the papers, some trekking and climbing groups have got visas on arrival.

“The rules have to be very clear, they should not be confusing, and they should be consistently applied,” said on international airline manager in Kathmandu. “Otherwise, it adds to the uncertainty of travelling in the time of corona, and people end up cancelling their trips.”

The travel trade is putting pressure on the Ministry of Tourism to allow visa on arrival to all foreigners as long as they have insurance and PCR negative reports, and to streamline the entry process before the spring trekking and climbing season to revive the industry. More than 1 million people used to be directly employed in the tourism industry, and double that number depended partly on income from the sector.

“I am not very optimistic about 2021, but I believe 2022 is going to explode,” says Birendra Basnet, Managing Director of Nepal’s largest domestic airline Buddha Air, who expects arrivals by road and air to increase once India-Nepal travel is opened.

However, for attracting tourists from Europe and North America, he says Nepal has to publicise the fact that Nepal is a safe destination, and rebrand itself and proactively promote its unspoilt nature, and wilderness adventure for the post-pandemic era.

Buddha Air had started training its staff with safety drills and health protocols training for check-in and on board in July. After domestic flights resumed mid-September, Nepal’s airlines have been carrying even more passengers than pre-Covid on trunk routes because of reduced fares and the risks in long-distance bus travel.

Much of this surge is also due to the expansion in domestic tourism. Although arrivals figures are still lower than pre-Covid levels, destinations like Chitwan, Pokhara, Khumbu have picked up because of Nepali travelers.

Indeed, Dhananjay Regmi of Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) says domestic tourism has been able to partially compensate for the loss in business in the hospitality industry that used to be dominated by international visitors.

“Domestic tourism sustained us during the time of crisis, now with the vaccines, we hope foreign tourists will start coming back from the spring season,” Regmi says.

However, airline and hotel executives say that unless the visa process is made easier, and the restrictions relaxed, it is unlikely that the numbers will pick up till September at the earliest.

After regular international flights restarted in October, and trekking resumed in October, there has been some foreigners trickling in, but most have been deterred by safety concerns, as well as entry restrictions. Total tourists dropped from over 1.1 million in 2019 to fewer than 230,000 last year.

Tribhuvan International Airport saw a drop in number of passengers from 4.13 million in 2019 to only 1.03 million last year.       

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