Tourism revival process in Nepal might be disrupted in the upcoming autumn with a gradual resurgence of COVID-19 infections in many parts of the nation. The reappearance of the pandemic is mainly attributed to the new sub-variants, including BA.5, of the Omicron variant. This sub-variant has been found to be more contagious than its previous lineages. Some cases driven by it have lately been detected in Nepal and many other countries around the world. The steady rise in the number of infections in the nation can be taken as a clear indication of the emergence of the fourth COVID wave.
Nepal now witnesses more than 100 fresh COVID-19 cases daily on average. As of now, the active caseload in the country has exceeded 600. But the rate of hospitalisation is not high while the fatality is nil. However, it is time for health authorities to take all necessary steps to deal with this situation. Neighbouring India is also reporting more COVID-19 infections, with around 17,000 daily. As some cases of the BA.5 sub-variant were recently detected in New Delhi and other parts of our southern neighbour, the pandemic is likely to spread rapidly there.
This might have a direct impact on Nepal as the country shares a long open border with India. People freely travel across the porous border. Since the decline in the Omicron-driven coronavirus cases in recent months, all the COVID-related curbs have been removed in many nations, including Nepal and India. However, these two immediate neighbours have been carrying out vaccination drives against the contagion effectively. In Nepal, the government has been vaccinating all the eligible people, including children aged 5-11 and 12-17 years.
The BA.5 sub-variant is reported to have been responsible for the resurgence of COVID cases in a number of nations and regions worldwide. With a considerable rise in the number of COVID-19 cases of late, health authorities have started sounding the alarm on the new sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5. According to the Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the BA.5 sub-variant has now emerged as the leading cause of infections in the United States of America (USA). This sub-variant currently makes up about 54 per cent of COVID-19 cases there.
Numerous parts of Western Europe are also reporting more COVID-19 cases. As per media reports, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Greece and Denmark, among others, have seen rapid rise in infections. Being a popular summer holiday destination for many travellers, Portugal is witnessing the biggest surge in infections. Some of the nations, including Portugal, have also recorded more hospitalisations with the arrival of these new sub-variants.
Health experts say that the easing or lifting of restrictions imposed to contain the viral disease could be one of the reasons for such resurgence in COVID-19 infections. The World Health Organisation (WHO) constantly calls on all the people around the world to follow health safety protocols as the pandemic still exists. It is needless to reiterate that this contagion has caused damage to global economy since its outbreak in late December 2019. As a susceptible industry, tourism has been among the worst-hit. However, tourism was recovering steadily with COVID cases and resultant deaths falling.
But the ongoing tourism revival process is likely to be obstructed in many destinations around the world with the appearance of newer and more transmittable virus sub-variants. What is more appalling is that these new sub-variants might even evade protection given by vaccines and earlier infections from other variants. When the tourism recovery process hits a snag globally, Nepal’s tourism, too, might suffer.
Since the beginning this year, tourist arrivals in Nepal have remained encouraging even amidst the outbreak of the Omicron variant, with total arrivals of 237,696 in the first six months. The nation received only about 151,000 international travellers in 2021 as compared to 230,085 in 2020. However, tourism was thriving in the country in the pre-pandemic time. The country had welcomed about 1.2 million foreign tourists in 2019.
The government recently announced to attract one million foreign tourists during the fiscal year 2022/23. Tourism holds a lot of significance for Nepal as this multidimensional industry is the second largest source of foreign exchange earning following the remittance sector. It also contributes to creating jobs for hundreds of thousands of people. Being a resilient sector, tourism can revive and grow by leaps and bounds in no time as soon as a favourable situation comes out.
Added air access
Nepal can give a boost to her tourism. As a fascinating tourist destination, the country possesses endless prospects. As the Gautam Buddha International Airport has already come into operation, some new foreign international airlines have started operating their regular services there. Similarly, Thai Smile, a subsidiary of Thai Airways, has launched its direct flights on the Bangkok-Kathmandu sector since July 1. It is planning to operate a fight daily. Air China has also resumed its services on the Chengdu-Kathmandu route while Korean Air is going to restart its direct flights between Incheon and Kathmandu from August. This increased air access may help the nation boost the tourism business.
However, the government does not appear to be coming up with any solid plan to achieve this target. The Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) also seems to have remained inactive. NTB needs to play a catalytic role in tourism promotion and marketing. It must incorporate inputs and suggestions from the private sector and act accordingly so as to reinvigorate this sector. The authorities and other stakeholders should start working out plans to handle tourism smoothly by applying health safety measures even when the COVID cases continue rising. The importance of tourism is much higher now because the nation’s foreign exchange reserves are decreasing fast.
(The author is a deputy executive editor of this daily.)