Welcoming a million foreign tourists in a calendar year has long been considered the holy grail of Nepali tourism. Now that mark has been breached. According to Nepal Tourism Board, in the first 11 months of 2018, Nepal welcomed 1,001,930 foreign tourists who came here by air, a 17 percent increase from the same period in 2017. Factor in those entering Nepal via land, and the tourist number shoots up by 23 percent. This is something to be celebrated, particularly after the slump witnessed in the aftermath of the 2015 earthquake.
Even before data for this period were in, the government had already made public its plan to attract two million tourists by 2020. Many considered it impossible as the country could not get even half that number for so long. But better-than-expected numbers this year could make the skeptics rethink. If not exactly two million, it would be quite an achievement to welcome, say, 1.5 million. But are our airports, hotels and transport services prepared for so many visitors? For instance, cumulatively, Nepali hotels can handle around 500,000 guests a year, excluding stay-home options and Airbnb rooms. Can the number of rooms be so drastically ramped up in such a short time?
The same with our air transport facilities. Right now the country has a single international airport. The good news is that the pace of work at both Pokhara and Bhairahawa international airport projects is brisk and on current course both will come into operation by the end of 2020. But even if we can accommodate two million visitors, is it wise to have them all? Phewa Lake, the center of attraction of the tourist city of Pokhara, is shrinking because of building works in the area. What remains of the lake is highly polluted. Meanwhile, Mt Everest is fast turning into a garbage dump. Hoteliers also complain of the increasing influx of ‘lightweight’ backpackers who like to complain but not to spend much cash.
If the goal is to make tourism a strong pillar of the Nepali economy, perhaps the time has come to focus on high-end tourism. The Swotha neighborhood in Patan, for instance, charges upward of $100 a room for an authentic Newari experience, and the rooms there are seldom empty. Perhaps a few of the 100 new ‘tourist locations’ in Nepal can be developed for such high-end tourism. Sustainability and profitability need not be mutually exclusive.
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