The year 2020 remained the worst period for tourism as well as many other sectors globally. The world recorded one billion fewer international arrivals last year than in the previous year. According to the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), global tourist arrivals fell by 74 per cent in 2020 as compared to the figures of the preceding year. The year was the most unfavourable for Nepal's tourism industry as well. No sooner had the government launched the 'Visit Nepal 2020' than the first COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in the country. The national tourism campaign aimed at welcoming two million foreign tourists by 2020 and beyond. But unfortunately, the year turned out to be the worst in terms of tourist arrivals as well as revenue generation.
Health crisis In Nepal, the global public health crisis led to more than 80 per cent drop in foreign tourist arrivals last year in comparison to the previous year. Just 230,085 foreign travellers made their trips to the country during the whole year. After the imposition of the nationwide lockdown on March 24, all the tourism-related activities came to a complete halt. Of the total tourist arrivals, only about 15,000 came to the country between April and December. With an unprecedented fall in tourist arrivals, the country's tourism incomes also went down alarmingly. The government halted to issue an on-arrival visa to foreigners after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a pandemic. The government also had to cancel the much-awaited tourism campaign as the pandemic continued to spread like a bonfire worldwide. In 2018, the tourism sector generated an estimated Rs. 240.7 billion in revenue and created supported more than 1.05 million jobs directly and indirectly. The World Travel and Tourism Council's research report shows that the travel and tourism sector's total contribution to the gross domestic product stood at 7.9 per cent in the same year. The government formed a joint committee of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal and the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) to assess the loss incurred to the tourism and aviation sectors because of the contagion. The team found that these sectors suffered a loss of about Rs. 41 billion during the 120-day lockdown. It also estimated that these sectors were facing a loss of Rs. 10 billion a month. Considering such a challenging situation, the government pledged to take some relief measures such as refinancing, concessional loan and extension of tax payment period for tourism-related businesses. It also promised to offer discounts on aircraft parking and license fees to help save Nepali airlines. A huge number of employees and workers lost their jobs and other sources of livelihood due to the closure of tourism-related businesses for an indefinite period. There is a possibility of such human resources being disappeared from the tourism industry if it does not return to the path of recovery soon. As part of its tourism recovery plan, the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation launched the Tourism Recovery Task Force (TRTF-Nepal) formally on September 27. The government also allocated Rs. 200 million for the rehabilitation and recovery of the tourism sector. Besides, in its new monetary policy, the Nepal Rastra Bank (NRB) also accorded priority for the revival of tourism. But such efforts have not been as effective as anticipated because of the protracted coronavirus transition.
Improved scenario As the tourism industry kept hitting a snag even after lifting the nationwide lockdown, the government decided to reopen the door for adventure seekers, especially trekkers and mountaineers, from mid-October. The government's move proved to be quite fruitful. October and November saw one expedition each. In the second week of October, the Bahrain Royal Guard Expedition with Bahrain's Prince Mohamed Hamad Mohamed Al Khalifa scaled Mt. Manaslu. It was the year's first ever ascent of the country's mountain above 8,000 metres. Before attempting Mt. Manaslu, the team made it to the summit of the 6,119-metre Mt. Lobuche, which is located in the Khumbu region. The expedition also had other climbers, including renowned Nepali mountaineers Mingma Sherpa and Tashi Lakpa Sherpa. Similarly, Prince of Qatar Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulla Al Thani and his team reached the summit of Mt. Amadablam. Situated in the Everest region, the 6,812-metre peak is considered as one of the most beautiful. Even during the outbreak of the coronavirus contagion, construction of two major airports —Gautam Buddha International Airport in Lumbini and Pokhara International Airport — have been going on smoothly. Once these airports, as national pride projects, come into operation, the country's tourism sector is expected to grow significantly. With several nations across the world, including Nepal, reporting fewer new cases of COVID-19 cases in recent times, there are high hopes that the global situation may return to normalcy gradually. The initiation of the vaccination against this pandemic has also been going on in many countries globally. Amid such an improving situation, everyone can now see the light at the end of the tunnel. Several tourist destinations such as the Maldives and Thailand have already stepped up necessary measures to host international tourists. Even the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has begun welcoming many international tourists. Although Nepal has failed to entice many foreign tourists since the outbreak of the pandemic, domestic tourism is now reviving. Major tourist destinations like Pokhara, Nagarkot, Lumbini and Chitwan are attracting more domestic tourists. The increase in the number of domestic flights in recent times also justifies this. The steady recovery of domestic tourism has been supporting the hotel industry, to some extent. Binayak Shah, 1st Vice President of Hotel Association Nepal (HAN), hoped that Nepal's tourism would be bounced back as the effectiveness of a vaccine against the pandemic built confidence among people worldwide. "Let us hope that there will be time when everyone will feel safe from this pandemic and restart travelling. Many people across the world are now eager to visit places," Shah said. Some two months ago, the government decided to allow all tourists to enter Nepal by air. Despite this, many tourists have not been showing their interest in visiting the country due to visa and quarantine-related complications. The government has yet to resume issuing an on arrival visa to tourists.
Way forward Travel trade people have called on the government to open border points with China and India and begin issuing on arrival visas to tourists. They have called for removing the provision for every inbound tourist to stay in quarantine. "Tourists are still reluctant to visit Nepal due to the issue of quarantine. Since this provision has created hassles for tourists, the government must pay a serious consideration to this and act accordingly", said Achyut Guragain, President of Nepal Association of Tour & Travel Agents (NATTA). Guragain suggested that the government should come up with a more practical measure immediately for saving the tourism industry. Hari Prasad Dharel, chairman of Himalayan Rescue Association Nepal (HRA), urged the government to simplify the visa and other procedures for attracting foreign tourists. "After the start of the vaccination campaign, the situation has changed globally. So, the government should not make it mandatory for all tourists to be quarantined. Those producing vaccination certificates and negative PCR reports for the virus should be allowed to travel freely", said Dharel. According to him, HRA is ready to join hands with the government for vaccinating tourist guides, mountain guides and other supporting staff. Navin Trital, Senior Vice President of Trekking Agencies' Association of Nepal (TAAN), underlined the need for the government to revise the existing health safety protocols immediately in order to help revive the tourism sector. Trital suggested installing a PCR testing machine at the TIA so as to get incoming tourists tested for the virus. "Then can we send only those having PCR reports positive for the virus to quarantine. Others should be allowed to travel to destinations of their choice freely," he said. He was worried that several international airlines could pull out their services from Nepal if the country's tourism did not bounce back soon. At a time when large-scale political gatherings and street protests have been taking place almost on daily basis across the country, it is unnecessary to set such conditions for foreign tourists to come here. Ngawa Ngima Sherpa, newly-appointed board member of Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), also asked the government to modify its health safety guidelines and scrap the US$ 5,000 COVID-19 insurance provision instantly. "We should also lift all the restrictions and allow all international airlines to resume their flights to and from Kathmandu" Sherpa said. With her diverse tourist attractions, Nepal can host adventurers as well as cultural tourists from across the world. "This country can be a preferred destination for tourists belonging to different age groups." Nepal is set to welcome several mountain expeditions during the upcoming spring. Sherpa hoped that the country's tourism would steadily in the near future. He said the NTB would leave no stone unturned for the recovery of this important economic sector. It is high time that the government authorities and all other tourism stakeholders assessed the situation in a practical way and do the needful for the recovery of the tourism industry.