With the outbreak of COVID-19 in late December 2019 and frequent emergence of different variants and sub-variants of the coronavirus, tourism has remained one of the worst-hit worldwide. However, this fragile but resilient sector has begun picking up slowly in many countries, including Nepal, since the beginning of 2022. Tourism is such a sector that has manifold effects on the national economy. This sector is very important to Nepal’s economy as it is the second biggest source of foreign exchange earnings after the remittance sector. Tourism helps create lots of jobs because it directly or indirectly supports many other sectors. With her amazing scenic beauty along with topographical and climatic peculiarities, and unmatched cultural diversity, the country possesses unbounded potentials for tourism growth. Despite all this, the country has failed to translate such potentialities into reality fully.
Looking back to the country’s tourism scenario over the past two decades, it was quite turbulent due to numerous internal and external factors. During the decade-long Maoist insurgency, tourism was in the doldrums. No holidaymakers visit any destination which is not safe and peaceful. However, with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) in November 2006, the tourism business started showing some indications of recovery, with more international tourists arriving into the country. But the lingering political transition and the thriving ‘strike and bandh culture’ continued to be an obstacle to a smooth tourism growth. Political activities seemed to have dominated all the economic and other development issues until the promulgation of the Constitution of Nepal, 2015.
On rebounding path
The shattering April 2015 earthquake was another reason for the slackness of tourism. The 7.6-magnitude quake not only killed thousands of people but also ravaged hundreds of thousands of structures, including private homes, public offices, and cultural heritage sites. However, the country started witnessing revival of tourism from 2017 when more than 940,000 foreign tourists came to this nation. The number increased to about 1.17 million and 1.19 million in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Encouraged by that increasing trend, the government, together with the private sector, announced 2020 as the Visit Nepal Year with an ambitious target of hosting 2 million international visitors by that year and beyond. But the government had to revoke the national tourism campaign owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2020, the nation recorded just about 230,000 tourists while the figure dropped to about 151,000 in 2021. Though the country’s tourism industry has now been on a path of rebounding, uncertainties are still looming large because of several factors such as global recession and the Russia-Ukraine war. Against this backdrop, what is heartening to note here is that tourism is high on agenda of the major political parties contesting the upcoming federal and provincial elections. In their poll manifestoes, the parties have promised to boost the multifaceted tourism industry for developing more enterprises and creating additional jobs within the country. The ruling Nepali Congress (NC) has mentioned, in its commitment paper, that the party will dedicate itself to attracting at least 2 million international tourists annually within the next five years. The party also aims to increase the per capita income of Nepalis to US$ 2,400.
Similarly, the CPN-UML’s commitment document states that it will make efforts to increase the number of foreign tourists visiting the country to 2.5 million a year. The party has also pledged to develop Nepal into an appealing international tourist destination through carrying out tourism promotion programmes abroad in a more effective manner. The UML aims to build more tourism infrastructures and upgrade the existing ones. Besides, it promises to lengthen the stay of tourists in order to make them spend more during their stay in the country.
It also commits to mobilising Nepal’s diplomatic missions abroad to promote the nation’s tourism resources. It plans to establish a university for higher studies concerning tourism to prepare the required human resources for this sector. In addition, the party also intends to identify, promote, develop and protect various segments of tourism. It will also build film cities in all seven provinces.
In the meantime, the CPN-Maoist Centre has vowed to do groundwork for luring as many as 3 million foreign tourists annually into the country. Terming tourism as a major pillar of the national economy, the party aims at organising the Visit Nepal Year in a more revised and extended manner. The party has even declared to work together with the private sector for publicity and marketing of the nation’s unrivalled tourist resources worldwide. Its manifesto reads that it will mobilise the country’s diplomatic missions abroad for promoting tourism by setting an annual target for them.
With the theme of “Basis of Employment and Prosperity: Tourism for All”, the party plans to give a boost to eco-tourism, cultural tourism and adventure tourism segments. It also wants to highlight various Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage sites like Pashupatinath, Swargadwari, Janakpur, Halesi and Lumbini with an objective of enticing pilgrims.
Other political parties have also given equal importance to the development of tourism in their respective election manifestoes. But none of the parties seems to have come up with any plan to strengthen the national flag carrier — Nepal Airlines Corporation (NAC). No country can make desired strides in tourism promotion without having a reliable and credible national carrier. Removing Nepal from the air safety list of the European Union (EU) is equally essential. The EU’s ban on Nepali airlines from flying into the European skies has hindered the nation’s tourism development. The government and the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) need to do the needful in delisting the country from this air safety concern.
There has been tendency among the political parties and their leaders to promise the moon during the elections and forget their pledges immediately after reaching power. They must shun this type of behaviour if they really want to take the tourism sector to its newer heights. Tourism cannot thrive without proper and careful planning.
(Dahal is a Deputy Executive Editor of this daily.)