Pokhara, with its heavenly scenery and peace, is a bliss for tourists. And it has over the years been developed as a convenient base for adventure activities in and around the Annapurna Range. But this year has been a disaster, like everywhere else.
Tourism, naturally, has been hit hard by the pandemic. Travelling is last thing on people's mind. And for countries like us banking on tourism as one of the pillars of economic development, this is a huge setback.
The year had started with the launch of Visit Nepal 2020 as a government flagship program. There were high hopes that it would help undo the effects of the 2015 earthquake. But right from the start, the indicators were not good.
When then Tourism Minister, Yogesh Bhattrai, inaugurated the campaign’s marketing in Australia in the midst of one of the greatest wildfires in that country's history, we could guess the execution was going to be messy and mindless. On top of that, the program itself was held at a public place without the permission of city authorities, causing much embarrassment for the rookie minister.
Then Covid struck. The same minister was on his toes again, this time with a plan to declare Nepal a 'Corona Free Country', and initiate a new phenomenon: ‘Shelter Tourism based on Refuge from Epidemic’.
As ridiculous as the idea was, it was also an indication of how our leaders think—mostly myopically or, at best, under the influence of a small echo-chamber of advisors whose only expertise is political bickering.
As the pandemic unrolled itself, it engulfed mighty plans and shattered many dreams. The beginning of Covid-19 vaccine program in many European countries had given a glimmer of hope. We expected visitors from the European and American markets. But then the new Covid strain changed the game again.
Bijay Amartya, who has been involved in the tourism business for a long time, says: “The new Covid-19 virus strain and countries’ restrictions in the form of flight bans could be a major blow to the global tourism industry. Nepali tourism industry was expecting some positive announcement from the government on opening on-arrival visa facilities and more international flights from the New Year. Things, apparently, won’t be so straightforward. ”
The main tourist season in Nepal is between September and March. With the season opening on a low, all hopes were pinned on the vaccinations to balance the 2021 season. But now the vaccinations too are doubtful.
One would expect the government to act swiftly to mitigate job losses and step up in every possible way to ease the hardships. But Nepal's politicians instead brought in a bigger disaster. With the parliament dissolved, all investors, including in the tourism sector, are jittery. The arrivals this year have already reached a new low, comparable to that of pre-1996 conflict era.
However, there is a new way to look at the reality that could change how tourism works in Nepal forever. Pokhara saw a surge in domestic tourism during this festive season despite the pandemic, giving new hope and window of opportunity for a paradigm shift.
Florence Karki, the Co-founder and General Manager of The Cliff, Kusma, an extreme adventure activities resort that began operations October this year, says: “We were skeptical about the opening. But it had already been seven years since we started working on this, and waiting any longer was not an option. We have been overwhelmed by the response. Nepali travelers, with their new purchasing power, can upturn how the tourism industry operates.”
But as operators and investors speak from insight and wisdom they have garnered after much pain, the ones who decide on these matters are clueless. And recently, the previous health minister who was ridiculed for his work, has now been given the responsibility of the tourism ministry. The ministry has mostly been a silent spectator on matters that concern tourism.
In a Facebook Group named Nepal Tourism Think Tank, many participants expressed befuddlement as to why foreigners coming from other countries have to spend seven days in quarantine despite their PCR negative status while the same rule doesn't apply for Indians even though India is perhaps the worse-affected country in the world.
A similar question has confused many foreigners in Nepal for years: why do they have to pay almost three times for domestic flights to what is charged of Nepali and Indian citizens?
So, apart from the pandemic, we clearly see problems like misplaced priorities, policy disorientation and government inaction. And now, the question that the people from the industry are asking is: How are we going to survive?
But, Marcus Cotton, who has been involved in the industry for over three decades, and is currently the CEO of Tiger Mountain Resort, Pokhara shows us that there is a flip side to it too: “I have less sympathy with well-established tourism businesses who cried foul and immediately laid off all staff. These companies should have had at least six months of contingency funding for a crisis. But for new businesses, this obviously wasn’t an option.”
The blame game between industry operatives and government agencies will lead us nowhere. The onus to tackle this is a shared one.