Guiding Nepal’s tourism industry

Bhaktapur and Patan have begun training guides to prepare for a new influx of tourists

How does tourism industry intersect with local governments in a federal state? Patan and Bhaktapur have shown the way by their municipalities working with Nepal Academy of Tourism and Hotel Management (NATHM) to meet the demand for tour groups in various languages.

There is an increasing demand for guides who can help visitors understand the history and culture of the places they visit in Kathmandu Valley. Increasingly because of the changing nature of the source countries, guides are needed who are fluent in Mandarin, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, or Russian.

Nepal wants to attract 2 million tourists in the next two years, and all the emphasis has been on the hardware: airportshotels and highways. How about software like training for the hospitality industry?

Guide training will not just meet demands from visitors, but will also create jobs closer to home for young Nepalis who may otherwise be tempted to migrate. But, as good as the intentions behind this initiative may be, it will take some time to build trust and a system where the local tour guides and the tourists will benefit from each other.

Local tourism committees and the municipalities in Bhaktapur and Patan are trying to work out the fee structures, bookings, the ratings, uniforms, visible ID cards. Guides do not just need to be well versed in the history and the culture of Kathmandu Valley towns, they also need to know how to improvise.

During a training session last week at Bhaktapur Darbar Square at 8 am, the big bell began to ring. Like any good tourist, the trainees were asked what the ringing signified. The answer was that the bell was ringing for morning prayers at the Taleju Temple. While locals knew the answer, the guides had to be trained to anticipate such questions.

Vocabulary can be a limiting factor for tour guides since they are not explaining in their mother tongues. While being trained in the iconography of the Narasimha, all the guides knew the items Vishnu held in his four arms, but translating it all into English or Mandarin can be a real challenge.

The trainees have begun to develop their own personalised thesaurus that they will be expanding on over the next few years. This was a also a good time to introduce Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘ten thousand hour rule’ to young Nepalis, who are in a big hurry to succeed. It will take the trainees 10,000 hours of hard work if they are to become the best tour guides in Nepal.

Providing context to the visitors was another challenge for the trainees. How much context should be given without overwhelming visitors with information? What was happening in their own country during the heydays of the kingdom of Bhaktapur? Why are the countries from where the tourists come wealthy, while Nepal slipped into poverty and feudalism? What were the key events that changed the history of the world and Nepal in particular? Guides therefore need to have a much broader general knowledge, and not just the specifics of one place.

To become a really good tour guide, they also need to know about the present relevance of the monuments, spaces and the cultural events. Why are we able to give continuity to some festivals while others struggled to exist? Why, for example, did we stop maintaining water sources at the Valley rim every 12 years as we used to? Was it because we got piped drinking water, or was there something else?

History is generally considered to be a boring list of kings and their reigns. Histroy is no longer a popular subject at university; last year only one student enrolled in history at TU. Therefore, bringing a historical city to life is not as easy as it seems. But it can be done.

If we are to truly benefit from sightseeing tourism, we need guides who have that breadth of knowledge to explain our heritage to the world. This means tourists who spend more, who buy souvenirs, eat, and rent bed and breakfast pensiones. They check their bucket list and they will go back and tell others to come. Many will come back if the tour guide can provide the context. This would benefit Nepal’s economy and not just provide income for tour guides and their families. The most difficult thing about culture seems to be able to say: “I do not know, but I will find out.”

Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc.

Read also:

2 million by 2020, Shreejana Shrestha

Re-imagining tourism, Anil Chitrakar

Marketing the intangible, Anil Chitrakar 

Anil Chitrakar