Regardless of an economic slump facing many tourist source countries worldwide and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, Nepal has continued to welcome more international tourists, boosting the level of confidence of the tourism industry. The initial three months of 2023 have remained cheering for the tourism stakeholders, with nearly 228,000 visitor arrivals. In March, more than 99,000 foreign travellers entered the country by air alone. This is the highest monthly arrival figure following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic more than three years ago. The data accounts for about 78 per cent of the total visitor arrivals logged in March 2019. The nation had recorded about 1.19 million international travellers in 2019. The number was the highest ever in the country’s seven-plus decades of tourism history. India, China and the United States had remained the top three tourist generating markets for the country that offers a variety of attractions ranging from unmatched natural beauty coupled with topographical and climatic distinctions to cultural diversity.
Spring is a peak season for tourists to visit Nepal. The period between March and May is suitable for adventurers like trekkers, those interested in river rafting and wildlife tourism activities, bird watchers and other nature lovers. With the beginning of spring, various tourist destinations like Kathmandu, Pokhara, Chitwan, Lumbini, Nagarkot and Dhulikhel have witnessed a lot of travellers, increasing hotel occupancy significantly. Major trekking regions such as Khumbu, Annapurna and Langtang have also attracted thousands of trekkers from around the globe. Lukla and Namche in Solukhumbu district now host a large number of trekkers. Likewise, the number of pilgrims, especially Indians, visiting Muktinath through Jomsom of Mustang district is very high.
As tourism is a multidimensional sector, it directly or indirectly contributes to the local economy through job creation and supports other sources of livelihood. It also boosts a myriad of auxiliary sectors like agriculture and handicraft. Categorised as an export industry, tourism could be instrumental in reducing the country’s trade deficit by increasing the foreign exchange reserve and improving the living standard of people. Tourism is the second largest source of foreign exchange earnings for this nation after remittances sent by Nepali migrant workers working abroad. But tourism is still a seasonal business. When tourism is operated round the year, its contribution to the national economy could rise considerably. So, efforts need to be geared towards this end.
Meanwhile, the Department of Tourism (DoT) under the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoCTCA) is now issuing permits to mountaineers from different parts of the world to attempt different mountains, including the world’s tallest peak—Sagarmatha, for this season. Being home to eight of 14 mountains above 8,000 metres and hundreds of other peaks, Nepal is the most sought-after destination for climbers from around the globe. Given the increased inquiries about and bookings for mountaineering activities, Nepali expedition operators hope that hundreds of climbers are expected to attempt to climb Mt. Everest from the Nepal side during this season. Even amid a growing fear for COVID-19, as many as 409 permits had been issued to climbers to attempt Sagarmatha in 2021. But the number of permits delivered fell to 325 last year. The Ukraine war was responsible for that.
China has not permitted foreign climbers to scale Mt. Everest from its side since 2020. However, the northern neighbour has allowed its citizens to visit Nepal after removing its three-year long restrictions since March 15. Chinese government has also fully reopened the Kerung border point for trade and travel since April 1 while it is in the process of resuming the Tatopani border point from upcoming May 1. This initiative has rekindled much hope and enthusiasm among Nepali travel trade entrepreneurs. Nepal may see an influx of Chinese travellers in the days to come as Kathmandu has good air connectivity with various Chinese cities. Several Chinese carriers have already resumed their flights to and from Kathmandu. Chinese arrivals are also anticipated to address the seasonality restraint, to some extent, as they may come here almost throughout the year.
In view of a significant contribution of the tourism sector to the national economy, Nepal government has given high priority to this sector. In its Common Minimum Programme (CMP), the government has expressed its strong commitment to developing Nepal into an appealing tourist destination. It aims to focus on building up additional tourism infrastructures such as airports and roads. Besides, it will also work towards ensuring air safety, and making all the service providers like hotels, travel agencies and trekking companies improve the quality of services. Upgrading tourism facilities and services is essential for Nepal at a time when there is a tough competition among different destinations at the regional and global levels.
The government is also planning to utilise the cultural, floral and faunal multiplicity, and topographical diversity for boosting the tourism sector. It also plans to manage national parks and other conservation areas properly in order to spur tourism growth. Despite having enormous potentials for tourism growth, the country has been unable to cash in on them. The country is often portrayed as a ‘cheap destination’ internationally. But tour operators as well as visiting tourists say that tour packages offered here are more expensive than many other destinations in this region. This is because of high airfares. The government also needs to take this issue seriously. As the number of COVID infections driven by new sub-variants of Omicron has lately been increasing fast, the viral disease may pose a threat to the reviving tourism. Therefore, necessary precautions must be adopted to contain the spread of the disease.
(Dahal is Deputy Executive Editor of this daily.)