When the country went into its first lockdown on March 24 this year, everything was shut: schools, salons, gyms, swimming pools, hotels, restaurants, bars and every other service that the government deemed unnecessary. People stayed put in their homes. As lockdown restrictions waxed and waned, for over six months people were alternately scared, confused, bored, frustrated and angry.
When the restrictions were finally lifted in the first week of September, Nepal went back to normal as if the virus had suddenly disappeared. Despite the rising number of cases, ‘covid fatigue’ made most folks shun all health protocols and rush back, pell-mell, to their daily lives. Hotels, restaurants, bars and clubs reopened in all of the country’s major tourist hotspots. Only this time, they were mostly filled with internal tourists.
The rebound against the roughly six months of lockdown was so strong, our sources tell us, tourist cities of Pokhara and Chitwan were full of domestic tourists in September and October, especially around Dashain and Tihar.
Lakeside's Rolling Stones Rock bar on Dec 22, Tuesday
It is only natural that hotels and restaurants see 2021-eve as an opportune time to revive their businesses that were battered by the covid contagion. With the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation proposing two-day weekend to promote domestic tourism and the number of internal tourists increasing regardless, tourism entrepreneurs are now hopeful of surviving till the world gets back to normal.
Domestic tourists have of late been flocking to the lake city. Yet the announcement of the Restaurant and Bar Association Nepal (REBAN) Pokhara’s 22nd Lakeside Street Festival was still a surprise. After the lockdown starting March and concomitant restrictions barring over 25 people from gathering at a public place, the upcoming street festival, scheduled for December 30-January 1, could be Nepal’s best attended entertainment event of past nine months.
The days of the festival have been cut from five to three and fewer participants are expected compared to previous years. Yet Pokhara’s tourist entrepreneurs are pinning their hope on the festival to give a new boost to their flagging businesses.
Bikash Bhattarai, general secretary of REBAN Pokhara, assures top-notch anti-covid measures during the three-day festival. “The festival is our effort to light a candle in the pitch darkness that has descended on our business,” says Bhattarai. “And we will take every measure to give attendees a sense of safety.” Bhattarai says REBAN Pokhara has already conducted training sessions on physical distancing and sanitization measures in the restaurants and bars in the Lakeside area.
The street festival will also cut short its list of activities deemed unsafe even outdoors. For instance, live concerts and sports activities including the annual tug-of-war have been cancelled in the fear that they could defy physical distancing protocols. The focus this year will rather be the various Lakeside restaurants showcasing their culinary skills in safe outdoor environments. Instead of musical concerts and crowded sports events, the festival will have small cultural programs and other activities that don’t involve big crowds. There will be health desks and coordinators who will monitor visitors and offer sanitization services.
“Recent trends suggest even domestic tourism can help us not just sustain but even earn a little profit,” Bhattarai says. “The popular restaurants and bars are back to doing up to 70 percent of their pre-covid business, which is a good indicator.”
For decades now, the Lakeside has been to Pokhara what Thamel has been to Kathmandu—an indicator of the city’s tourism and tourism-related economy. But while the outlook for Thamel, the older hub, is bleak, with many known establishments closing down forever, Lakeside offers a rosier picture. Bhattarai informs that not even five percent of restaurants and bars in Pokhara have remained closed and among those that have not reopened, more than half are getting back to business starting with the street festival. This was made possible with many landlords waving off all rents of some establishments till December. Other landlords waived off 50 percent rent and eased payments to help the outlets retain their spaces and the Lakeside its vibrancy. Unfortunately, the same coordination between landlords and tenants is absent in Thamel.
The Paschimanchal Hotel Association Pokhara (PHAP)—which is also conducting a campaign under the slogan “Jaaun Hai Pokhara” (Lets go to Pokhara) in major Tarai cities like Birgunj, Janakpur, Biratnagar and Chitwan—is also bullish on domestic tourists. As the lockdown restrictions were lifted and people’s mobility increased, Pokhara hotels saw up to 80 percent occupancies, albeit at vastly discounted rates.
“Domestic tourists are now the backbone of our tourism,” says Bikal Tulachan, hotelier and president of PHAP. “Every year, we have been getting more and more. The challenge for us is to maintain that momentum in this difficult post-lockdown phase.” At a time when international arrivals have virtually ground to a halt, Nepali tourist-related ventures have no option but to rely on and cater to domestic tourists, Tulachan says.
Irish Pub Pokhara on December 23, Wednesday
Citing the example of how well-off Nepalis spend millions of rupees vacationing abroad, Tulachan suggests local businesses improve infrastructure and customize businesses to cater to these tourists and keep the money in the country. While most businesses in tourist hubs were formerly focused on international guests, Tulachan suggests a change in approach.
Expressing doubt about the prospects of the proposed two-day weekly holiday and the ‘Internal Tourism Year 2021,’ especially after tourism minister Yogesh Bhattarai’s recent resignation, Tulachan urges a collective effort of all three tiers of government as well as stakeholders in tourism to boost domestic tourism.
Hari Poudel, manager of Lakeside’s famous Paradiso Sports Bar, formerly known as Club Amsterdam, is optimistic too. “We opened fully from September and have done good business since. We would be more than happy if the present situation continues,” Poudel says. He seconds Tulachan that venues now have to adapt to domestic tourists, which means a change in food, ambience, and music, among other factors.
Recalling how the streets of Lakeside were filled with vehicles from Kathmandu during Dashain, Poudel expects the same during the street festival. As there has been ‘negligible number of covid infections’ in the area, Poudel believes the outdoor festival will send a positive message about Pokhara’s tourism industry to the rest of the country.
Paragliding pilot Trisha Bomjan does not share the optimism though.
A seasoned flier who has been working in Pokhara for six years, Bomjan says these are desperate times for paragliders in Pokahra. “We have been giving 60-70 percent discount on paragliding services, which leaves us with almost nothing after you cut our expenses, other fees and paragliding companies’ commissions,” Bomjan says.
The main paragliding clients are international tourists, Bomjan informs. But now the roughly 400 pilots in Pokhara are making do with what little they make flying domestic tourists at heavily discounted rates. Also the accident last month, when a pilot died and a passenger sustained heavy injuries, drastically decreased the number of local passengers, Bomjan says. From 1,000-1,200 flights per day, the number has come down to 100-200, leaving many pilots without any work.
This brings us back to Tulachan who says that Pokhara might still attract local tourists but only if it can do more than bare minimum for visitors. Besides restaurants and bars, adventure tourism as well as other tourist activities need an overhaul to cater mostly to Nepalis. Adventure sports like zipline, bungee and paragliding are still niche among Nepali tourists and mostly a one-time affair. Also, their food habits are vastly different to foreigners’.
This suggests that as with most other businesses, constant adaption is the new name of the game for Pokhara’s tourism-related enterprises.