Even amid uncertainties, triggered by frequent resurgence of COVID-19, its economic fallout and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, tourism has been reviving substantially worldwide since the start of 2022. Being a prominent destination for adventurers, nature lovers and those interested in culture and lifestyle of people, Nepal also witnessed an encouraging trend in international visitor arrivals. As per the data released by the Nepal Tourism Board (NTB), the nation welcomed a total of 614,148 foreign tourists last year. This figure is about 300 per cent more than the tourist arrival data of 2021. While comparing last year’s tourist arrival figure with that of 2020, it stands at nearly 167 per cent more. But, the figure accounts for only about 51.29 per cent of tourist numbers the country recorded in 2019.
If these figures are any indication, the country’s tourism has now been on a recovery track. The country is likely to attract many more tourists this year provided everything goes well. Most online international airlines, hotels and tour operators have received good inquiries and bookings for the upcoming spring. Lots of international adventure seekers, especially mountaineers and trekkers, are anticipated to come here to experience the true adventure. The country is home to numerous mountains, including the world’s tallest (Sagarmatha) and other seven peaks above 8,000 metres. Besides, popular trekking places such as the Annapurna Region and the Khumbu Region have made the nation a preferred destination among international trekkers.
Though the government is considering marking 2023-2033 as a Visit Nepal Decade, it has yet to unveil its plan in detail. However, the government targets to attract one million tourists this year and 3.5 million by 2033. Announcing such plans alone will not be enough. The government must come up with a comprehensive plan and start making necessary preparations for achieving the targets. No doubt, Nepal needs more tourists. But only the number is not adequate for contributing to the national economy. We must concentrate our efforts on making more foreign currency (dollar) and creating additional tourism jobs.
What is good news is that China, which was the second biggest tourist source market for Nepal after India up until 2019, has reopened its borders and lifted restrictions on international passenger flights since Sunday (January 8, 2023). The northern neighbour has taken this move by changing its zero-COVID policy. As the country of 1.4 billion people has adopted the policy of easing cross-border travel, Nepal may see an influx of Chinese travellers in the near future.
Nepal has been able to make remarkable progress in the development of aviation infrastructure despite the lingering COVID-19 pandemic. The Pokhara International Airport (PIA) has come into operation since January 1 this year. This is the nation’s third international airport following the Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) in Kathmandu and the Gautama Buddha International Airport (GBIA) in Bhairahawa. GBIA was opened in mid-May last year alone. The operation of two more international airports in less than eight months shows that the country has been moving towards the right direction when it comes to the tourism infrastructure. These new airports are sure to cut pressure on TIA, help bring in more foreign tourists and diversify tourism within the country.
Situated at Chhine Danda of Pokhara Metropolis, PIA has the capacity to handle one million passengers annually. The operation of this airport has enhanced the level of confidence among tourism entrepreneurs and the locals as this facility could help boost tourism and support other sources of livelihood. With its unequalled tourist attractions ranging from scenic beauty to cultural diversity, Pokhara has been a leading tourist destination in the country for decades. The city receives hundreds of thousands of foreign as well as domestic tourists every year. Having a more tourist-friendly environment, this beautiful lake city possesses good accommodation facilities, and numerous adventure sports activities like zip-flying, bungee jumping, paragliding and rafting.
Besides, the city is a major entrance way to the Annapurna Region that hosts lots of domestic as well as international travellers annually. Several other adjacent areas like Mustang, Manang, Lumbini, Nepalgunj and Chitwan will also stand to benefit from the operation of this new aviation facility. Several domestic airlines are using this airport while some international carriers are likely to fly to and from Pokhara soon.
However, it is sad to mention that GBIA has failed to gain a desired momentum in the absence of the government’s initiative. Kuwait’s Jazeera Airlines has deferred its scheduled flights between Bhairahawa and Doha since December 18 last year, citing a lack of visibility due to the emergence of thick fog. Though the Instrument Landing System (ILS) has been installed at this airport, the device has yet to come into operation. ILS is a vital precision radio navigation system which gives short-range direction to planes by allowing them to approach a runway at night or in bad weather. For bringing ILS into use, Nepal must receive permission from India as the Indian skies also need to be utilised in the course of enforcing this system. The southern neighbour is said to have been reluctant to issue the permit. This has led to the deferral of flights to and from GBIA.
Since the inauguration of the airport on May 16 last year, Jazeera Airlines had launched its three weekly flights to and from Bhairahawa. Looking at better business prospects, the airline had even increased its flight frequency to daily services. But the carrier was unable to get passengers as expected. In view of this situation, Nepal should use political and diplomatic channels to take Indian into confidence so as to operate ILS. Once this system is in operation, several airlines, especially from Buddhist nations, may show their interest in flying to Lumbini.
The Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoCTCA), Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) and other relevant bodies must pay due attention towards promotion and marketing of these airports. Incentives should be offered to potential international carriers so as to encourage them use these facilities.
(Dahal is a deputy executive editor of this daily.)