Make sure you visit Nepal in 2020Tourists are not looking to rough it out, they want a lifetime experience
Things improve imperceptibly in Nepal, with small changes for the better. And that is the first thing frequent visitors to Kathmandu notice at the airport: the shining new floor of the arrival concourse and various gold-plated, hand-crafted figures at the base of the escalators.
It shows that with just a small effort, we can improve the state of the state. Tourism provides the incentive for positive actions in the past, and will help us do much more as we enter Visit Nepal 2020 when the country is hoping to double the number of visitors.
Tourism can also be attributed to creating jobs, lifting people out of poverty, helping save endangered species and their habitats, letting income percolate down to remote areas, and helping heritage conservation in a big way.
With politics more stable, and power outages behind us, Kathmandu Valley’s World Heritage Sites are lit for nighttime visitors. Horticulture farms producing organic food, art and crafts studios and workshops, chefs and hospitality staff, are all doing better. More and more hotels with better amenities give the sector the much needed competition that will focus on better quality of services. Tourism is good for Nepal, contributing up to 10% of the GDP according to one estimate.
As disposable income increases, more Nepali families are opting to travel and spend. These ‘domestic tourists’ on average spend more than the ‘budget tourists’ who came to Nepal because it is often sold as a cheap destination. Hotels that would deny rooms and services to Nepalis now prefer them.
Campaigns that call on people to travel within Nepal first, and then venture out into the world. (‘Pahila Desh, Ani Bidesh) are helping. The governor of Nepal Rastra Bank recently lamented that Nepali ‘tourists’ took Rs90 billion worth of foreign currency out of Nepal as compared to Rs74 billion brought in by foreigners.
Some say Nepalis, who used to save money, buy gold or land, are now spending more because of the near death experience during the 2015 earthquake. Religious sites like Manakamana were always popular, but now with increased mobility and spare change, Nepali pilgrims throng far flung temples. A foreign visitor asks where two million tourists will stay when millions of Nepalis are travelling. Good point.
Thirty years ago the trend was globalisation, and now there is a definite move towards localisation. Climate awareness has actually resulted in a drop in air travel in some European countries. Local restaurants with local drinks are doing better than those offering imported ones. Thakali restaurants used to be confined to the Mugling-Pokhara corridor, now they are everywhere. Textiles, handicrafts, building materials, design elements, food, fruits, sweets,yogurt, spices, tea, coffee, are all doing well because people want to try local.
Conversations these days are often dominated by, “Have you been to this amazing restaurant at Lakeside in Pokhara?” The social media is helping because friends and influencers post photos of Nepal’s most exotic places. Schools, colleges and businesses are going further afield within Nepal for field trips.
Nepal has two neighbors that have the highest number of outbound travelers in the world, and it is growing. These markets have special needs and may not match traditional North America or European clientele. Food, shopping, pilgrimage, corporate retreats, meetings, medical checkups, banking, ease of travel could be some of the reasons they may visit Nepal. With these giant markets next door, all we need to do is tailor-make our promotional campaigns in their language, and to suit their tastes.
To be sure, we will have to monitor alcohol, gambling and prostitution. We need staff trained with better language skills and safety standards and paid and treated with respect. Flight and vehicle safety need to be regularly upgraded.
The travel trade is changing, and the tourism entrepreneur has to be proactive. As the Visit Nepal slogan declares, visitors are looking for a lifetime experience and not a mediocre trip. We have the challenge to offer an experience that is distinctly different than China, India and Bhutan – but that does not mean visitors want to rough it out. We have to move towards carbon neutral tourism that contributes to conservation of nature and heritage. And: we have to stop selling poverty and volunteer tourism.
Let us not make it sound like the tourist is doing us a favor by coming here. Let them come because they want to, because Nepal is special. It has to be a lifetime experience.
Anil Chitrakar is President of Siddharthinc.