Tourism is crucial for creating jobs and earning foreign exchange. This industry may have multiple effects on the entire economy as it directly or indirectly supports many auxiliary sectors. With her diverse but unrivalled tourism products, Nepal has remained an appealing destination for travellers from across the world. Best-known as the Shangri-La, the nation is among the top adventure tourist destinations globally. Being home to Sagarmatha (Mount Everest) along with numerous other high mountains, unmatched trekking regions, beautiful valleys and rich culture of the people, the nation welcomes hundreds of thousands of tourists from around the world annually.
Before the outbreak of COVID-19, the country’s tourism business had been growing significantly, with a steady rise in visitor arrivals. The nation hosted about 1.17 million and 1.19 million international tourists in 2018 and 2019, respectively. In those years, India, China and the United States were the top three tourist source markets for this country.
Rise in investment
But the pandemic badly hit this sensitive industry globally. Like plentiful other destinations worldwide, Nepal’s tourism had also to pass through the most challenging situation in its seven-decade long history. Organising Visit Nepal Year-2020 (VNY-2020), the country had targeted to attract 2 million foreign tourists by that year and beyond. No sooner had the then government announced that national tourism campaign in 2018 than the country’s hospitality industry saw a colossal rise in investments. A lot of new big hotels, including some reputed international chains, and other joint venture companies, have come up while investors have added more rooms and other facilities to hundreds of other hotels and upgraded services. Billions of rupees have been invested in the hotel industry alone. Better hotels and resorts in different cities and regions are now waiting for tourists to come. The available accommodation facilities are now more than enough for well over 2 million tourists a year.
But when the country’s tourism was about to set a course for brighter days, COVID-19 started spreading rapidly. Many destinations, including Nepal, were forced to impose travel bans and other restrictions to contain the contagion. No doubt, such restraints were detrimental to the global economy, especially the susceptible hospitality sector. International tourism suffered a huge setback from the pandemic as the flow of tourists fell sharply in 2020 and 2021. Nepal, too, recorded an unprecedented drop in foreign tourist arrivals as well as tourism receipts in those two years. In 2020, the country attracted only about 230,000 international tourists while the number dropped to 150,962 the following year.
However, this resilient sector has begun bouncing back since the start of 2022. The statistics released by the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) have shown an encouraging trend of tourist arrivals. The country has recorded nearly 543,000 foreign tourists during the first 11 months this year. It is notable that the country played host to as many as 88,582 tourists in October and 72,653 in November alone.
As the number of COVID-19 infections has now gone down significantly worldwide following an effective vaccination drive, international tourist arrivals have also begun increasing, bringing high hopes to all tourism stakeholders. However, infections caused by a new subvariant of the contagion have lately been detected in some countries, including China. Another remarkable aspect is that the adventure tourism segment seems to have been flourishing in the post-COVID situation. In Nepal, more than 123 expeditions to 27 peaks were organised in spring 2022. Of the total number of teams, 42 attempted the world’s tallest peak while 14 took permit to reach the summit of the 8,516-metre Mt. Lhotse. In spring 2021, 45 expeditions from different parts of the globe attempted Mt. Everest. The Department of Tourism (DoT) had issued over 400 climbing permits in that year. Considering this trend, many more mountaineers and other adventurers are expected to visit this country in the upcoming spring and autumn. Despite this, we need to do much more in order to bolster our tourism.
The tourism industry is the Southeast Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia has been recovering at a fast pace. As Thailand is pioneer in tourism in the region, its neighbouring nations have learnt much from its success. Likewise, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar have also been able to make a great stride in tourism development. A lot of resources are being invested in tourism there. Qatar has now been in the spotlight globally due to the recently concluded FIFA World Cup -- Qatar 2022.
But Nepal is still falling back when it comes to the development of tourism despite having outstanding tourism products. Unhealthy business practices such as price undercutting have made our country a cheap destination. We have been losing the value of our tourism products. This tendency must stop for our tourism to sustain. Despite having long experience in managing tourism, we have failed to explore and promote new areas. The people living in different parts of the nation cannot stand to benefit from tourism without its diversification and sustainability.
Nepal also needs to follow the world’s tourism trend. We should go for eco-tourism as we have areas with unparalleled scenic beauty and natural resources. We are in dire need of jobs and foreign currency (US$) to take the country out of the economic fallout of the lingering COVID-19. In view of our immense tourism potentials, we must prioritise this smokeless industry for boosting the national economy.
The government should come up with policies and laws that are more suitable for the tourism sector to grow remarkably. Many of the existing policies and laws are not relevant in the present context. Tourism must be recognised as a national industry. In the aftermath of the pandemic, the country does not have much money to invest in hotels, aviation and other tourism-related businesses. The government is also not in a position to offer new relief packages to the ailing tourism industry. So, we are now in an urgent need of more foreign direct investment (FDI). We need to work out plans in order to attract FDI into hotels and other tourism enterprises.
Considering erratic weather pattern and possible snowfalls and avalanches in the mountain region, we must make extra efforts to ensure a better disaster management. Only when we put a robust crisis management mechanism in place, we can help enhance the level of confidence of potential tourists. This, in turn, will surely contribute to increasing the influx of travelers into the country.
(A former senior vice-president of Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN), Trital is a promising adventure tour operator.)