‘VNY offers opportunity for Nepal Airlines to regain glory’
10 Sep, 2019
Basant Raj Mishra is a renowned tourism entrepreneur as well as conservationist. Mishra, the executive chairman of the Temple Tiger Group of Companies, is a visionary travel trade leader. Affiliated with various professional associations related to the tourism industry, he is also the honorary consul of Chile to Nepal. Mishra is the recipient of the Life Membership Award. Instituted by the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), the prestigious award was conferred on him last year. He was the first Nepali to serve as the secretary and treasurer of PATA. Ballav Dahal of The Rising Nepal caught up with Mishra to speak about some pertinent contemporary issues related to Nepal’s tourism industry.
How have you looked at the country’s tourism development trend?
It is worth mentioning that Nepal’s tourism has recovered from the 2015 earthquake immediately one year after the disaster. Many people had anticipated that it would take at least 5-6 years for our tourism to recuperate from the devastating earthquake.
But there has been a constant growth in tourist arrivals in the country. We have yet to make great strikes in tourism growth. The existing growth is not sufficient to contribute to the national economy. The nation can benefit from tourism only when this sector grows significantly. The level of investment being made in physical infrastructure development and airlines is not adequate. Though the tourism sector in Nepal started from the early 1950s, we are still not doing well. Many nations that began promoting tourism several years later than Nepal have now moved far ahead of us.
We have excellent products to offer to tourists. In terms of products, we have comparative and competitive advantages over other nations. The poor infrastructure, especially the aviation industry, has been our major bottleneck. The tourism industry and the aviation industry do not grow in isolation. They need each other’s support to develop.
We also do not have better roads. The proposed tunnel highway linking Kathmandu to Naubise in Dhading is yet to commence. Construction of the expressway connecting Kathmandu with Nijgadh in Bara has also not gained desired pace. We are in dire need of a four-lane highway between Kathmandu and Pokhara for a more convenient movement of tourists. The policymakers are aware of the problems. But our infrastructure development is not happening on a war-footing.
If the airport enhancement work had been carried out on time, our connectivity would have improved. That would have also brought about drastic changes in our tourism. Such activities should have been carried out on a priority basis.
The government is going to organise the Visit Nepal Year 2020 (VNY) with an ambitious target of bringing in 2 million foreign tourists. How has the private sector taken this national tourism campaign? We have not faced any constraint of resources for the development and promotion of the tourism sector. The successive governments have been able to manage the required budget for this purpose. In my view, the VNY 2020 should have been announced earlier in 2016 or 2017 so that the government and the private sector could have adequate time to make preparations for the year-round event. However, the VNY 2020’s target does not look much ambitious considering our boundless tourism resources and prospects. But the fact is that we have failed to carry out necessary groundwork for the event due to limitation of time. When we celebrated Nepal Tourism Year 2011, we aimed at bringing in one million tourists. And we were able to attract only about 800,000 tourists. We hosted a bit more tourists than the target of 2011 only last year.
Thailand is pioneer in the region to launch Tourism Year. The country’s tourism has grown by leaps and bounds after the Tourism Authority of Thailand organised the Visit Thailand Year (VTY) in 1987. Since the beginning, Thai Airways has been a key player in promoting Thailand as an important tourist destination globally. The nation had set an ambitious target (both number of tourists and revenue).
Nepal should also learn from Thailand when it comes to promoting tourism. There should be extensive discussions over the VNY 2020. If we are not capable of holding the tourism campaign in an effective manner, we should postpone for one or two years. We can celebrate 2020 as a preparation year. We will have two more airports in operation by that time. The government must start promoting and marketing the Gautam Buddha Regional International Airport and Pokhara Regional International Airport right now. I have heard that the authorities concerned have yet to arrange air routes connecting to these airports.
Nepal’s tourism industry has suffered a great setback due to the ban on the operation of Nepali airlines in the European cities by the European Union (EU). Even when Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC) has two wide-body jets, the national flag carrier is not able to spread its wings to Europe, an important tourist source market. As the nation is organising a mega national tourism campaign, the government must lobby for taking out our airlines from the EU’s black list. The government should intensify the process of dividing the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) into two entities—service providing body and regulatory agency. We should also meet other reasonable conditions set by the EU. It may not be difficult for us to meet its conditions as we have addressed most of the air safety concerns raised by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). The VNY 2020 should be a golden opportunity for NAC to regain its lost past glory.
The domestic airport should be separated from the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) in order to reduce air traffic congestion. Efforts must be taken to build a separate domestic airport on the outskirts of the Kathmandu Valley.
Being an experienced tourism entrepreneur, do you have any more suggestions for the government and the private sector?
Negative publicity has continued to distress Nepal as a tourist destination. At a time when a negative message about the helicopter crash that killed some veterans, including our tourism minister in February, has been hitting our tourism, the current outbreak of dengue has created yet another problem. The issue has been so highlighted in the social media that it has tainted our destination image. Tourism is so fragile that it requires a lot of care. The VNY Secretariat, therefore, should refute this since the situation is not so bad as portrayed by the social media. We must also highlight positive things.
Besides, the government needs to recognise the tourism industry as a national industry considering its contribution to the national economy even during the adverse situations like the decade-long internal conflict and the devastating earthquake. It is also necessary for the government to reactivate the Crisis Management Cell, which was formed under the chairmanship of the Prime Minister during the conflict. The cell must act towards resolving problems crippling the tourism sector.
Another burning problem is the growing emission and traffic congestion in the Kathmandu Valley. There should be better planning for the conservation of heritage sites and the old buildings having archaeological and architectural values. The mayors of the major cities inside the valley must pay due attention towards giving a facelift to their cities. As tourism cannot grow in isolation, all the stakeholders must work together to make the VNY 2020 a great success.
How have you found the government’s perception of tourism?
One of our strengths at present is that we have a stable government. The Prime Minister himself has shown his interest in the VNY. The newly-appointed Minister for Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation is also very energetic and committed. Thus, the situation seems to be very favourable. Tourism Minister Yogesh Bhattarai has expressed his firm commitment to materialising the Second International Airport in Nijgadh of Bara district by minimising effects on the environment. The proposed airport would help the country make great strides in the development of tourism.
It is also a matter of encouragement that the government is planning to reopen hotels and resorts inside the Chitwan National Park (CNP) in the near future. This is certainly a welcome step. Also as a hardcore conservationist, my opinion is that development activities should be carried out in a sustainable manner. Nepal is pioneer in wildlife tourism in Asia. So, the country is often referred to as ‘Africa in Asia’. It is needless to say that Chitwan has been well-known for wildlife tourism. Many international celebrities, including Hillary Clinton and the then President of the World Bank Robert S. McNamara, had experienced wildlife safari inside the CNP. But some years ago, the then government closed down the hotels. Similar incident had taken place in Kenya as well.
Anyway, the government has realised the need to reopen those hotels. The wildlife tourism run inside the CNP was based on the concept that tourism development and ecological conservation go side by side. Only high-end tourists would stay inside the park. And there was a balance between those hotels and others located outside it. Thus, Chitwan’s wildlife tourism was a model for many destinations worldwide.
The government must provide the opportunity to those who had developed Chitwan into a tourist destination considering their experiences and expertise. They had not only employed locals but also contributed revenues to the government even during the adverse situation of the internal conflict. The hoteliers inside the park were among the second highest taxpayers after the entrepreneurs in Kathmandu. Looking at the carrying capacity of the park, other entrepreneurs should also be allowed to run hotels.
If the hotels inside the CNP are reopened in 2020, it will be the biggest ever publicity for Nepal.
What is your take on Nepal’s tourism marketing efforts?
The whole world is competitive now. We need to develop better marketing strategy on short-term, mid-term and long-term basis. The strategy must also include the provision of marketing audit in order to make it result-oriented. There should be a target (both number and revenue) in the strategy.