By Kshitiz Siwakoti, Kathmandu, Feb. 16: Tourism industry, the sector hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, is far away from getting revived, the data related to the arrival of tourists in the month of January in 2020 and 2021 suggests.
A staggering 86.5 per cent decline in the arrival of foreign tourists is observed when we compare the number of tourists who entered Nepal by Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) in the month of January 2021 and 2020. A total of 8,870 foreigners visited Nepal via TIA in January of 2021 whereas a total of 65,977 foreigners had arrived at TIA in the same month in 2020, according to the Department of Immigration.
A further staggering decline of 89 per cent in tourist arrival is observed when the number of tourists who landed in Kathmandu in January of 2019 and 2021.
Ramesh KC, Director General of the Department of Immigration, is of the view that due to the pandemic, people are not in a psychological or financial state to spend a vacation abroad. This coupled with 10 days long mandatory quarantine upon arrival in Nepal could have also discouraged people from visiting Nepal. “Due to the discovery of the new coronavirus variant in the UK and South Africa, we have had to set up a 10-day quarantine, he said.
The owner of a bus fleet company named Buddha Bus, Sangay Lama, said that for the last 11 months he has not got a single customer. “Even after lifting of the lockdown, it does not seem that my services can resume for another year as there are barely any foreign tourists,” Lama lamented.
A driver of the aforementioned company, Nabin Magar, said that for the last 11 months, he has only been receiving half of his salary. “I used to earn a meagre sum but it was at least sufficient to fulfil my family’s needs, but now the financial strain only keeps increasing and I find it very frustrating,” Magar shared.
Sundar Karki, Communications and Customer Manager of a travel agency named The Explore Nepal, highlighted that tourists have been avoiding Nepal due to the long quarantine periods. “Most foreign tourists save each dime and penny to travel abroad. Why would they choose to come to a country which would confine them for ten days?” Karki argued.
Karki also suggested that the government needs to work out a middle ground policy where the safety of people from COVID-19 can be ensured while also being tourism-friendly. “The government needs to shorten the time of quarantine and also provide rapid testing facilities in various tourist hotspots if we are to revive tourism in this unchartered waters of the post-pandemic era,” Karki said.
"The government needs to inspire the confidence of foreigners to promote Nepal as a safe destination. One way the government can do this is to provide extensive and reliable details of tourism sites to foreigners".
Vice-President of the Nepal Association of Tours and Travel Agents (NATTA), Binay Basnet, highlighted the importance of saving small scale travel agencies to revive tourism. “Even though the government has reduced the interest rates, we have noticed that many small tourism agencies do not always receive loans. How can we revive the tourism industry if those tourism businesses go bankrupt?” said Basnet.
Basnet also feels that a long quarantine period thwart potential foreign tourists from visiting Nepal.
"Since the tourism industry is heavily dependent on good services, all the involved have been adhering to the Health, Hygiene and Sanitation Protocol set up by the World Health Organisation (WHO). We have been adopting the best safety practices available, so we would urge the government to resume the on-arrival visa,” he said.
Basnet also pointed at the importance of reviving domestic tourism. “The hallmark of a sustainable economy is also dependent on domestic tourism. Agile domestic tourism industry can also help inspire confidence among foreign tourists to visit our country.”
To promote domestic tourism NATTA has opened its offices in 6 out of 7 provinces except for Province No. 2. On 6th and 7th February, NATTA organised a cycle rally with the slogan, “Chalo Thakurdwar,” from Nepalgunj to Thakurgunj. Cyclists from Nepal and India had participated in this rally with an aim to promote Bardiya National Park.
“In Nepal, we have a shortage of people with expertise in the tourism sector. To combat this challenge we have opened three new branches of the Nepal Academy of Tourism and Hotel Management (NATHM) in Birtamode in Province 1, Bardibas in Province 2 and Nepalgunj in Lumbini along with the government. The intake of students will happen very soon,” Basnet said.
The Director of the Research, Planning and Monitoring of Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) Mani Raj Lamichhane, said that the current focus of the NTB has been to revive domestic tourism. “We have created a Tourism Revival Committee in all seven provinces. The rationale behind it is to promote domestic tourism which also includes cross-cultural exchange among delegations of the provinces,” he said.
Lamichhane also talked about NTB’s plan to create an extensive Geographic Information System (GIS) database in collaboration with Tribhuvan University. The goal of this is to create a comprehensive inventory of tourism sites and attraction facilities in the country. It also plans to map out biophysical and socio-cultural data of all tourism-related areas across the country.
Lamichhane also stated that NTB along with the United Nations Development Programme had launched a programme to employ the most vulnerable people in the tourism sector. The workers were given employment for 45 days, with a wage of a 1,000 rupees per day. The workers were given tasks such as paving hiking trails.
NTB had also conducted a seminar on Health, Hygiene and Sanitation Protocol set out by the WHO for hoteliers and other agencies in the tourism industry to ensure a safe tourism industry.
The easing of lockdowns in many countries including Nepal has of late resulted in a slight resurgence of foreigners arriving in Nepal. Between October of 2020 and January of 2021, a total of 17,701 foreigners arrived in the country by air, although this data does not differentiate between tourists and non-tourists.
(Kshitiz Siwakoti is an intern with the TRN Online)