Hotels and restaurants in the tourist hub of Thamel are jumping back to life after two years of deathly quiet as the tourists return. Adventure seekers are putting the pandemic behind them, and are once again ready to pound the Himalayan trails, insiders said.
It’s spring in Nepal, and the high season has begun. On a sunny Sunday morning, trekkers and mountaineers could be seen swarming over hotel lobbies strewn with colourful trekking gear, making last minute preparations before flying to mountain airstrips which will be their staging point into the Himalaya.
Lukla airport, one of the busiest in the country, is the gateway to Everest. Other popular Himalayan destinations are Annapurna, Dhaulagiri and Manaslu.
“It seems the tourists are back,” Bijay Amatya, CEO of Kora Tours, told the Post.
Nepal received 42,006 foreign tourists in March, the highest monthly arrivals in almost two years.
“This shows signs of tourism recovery to pre-Covid figures,” said Deepak Raj Joshi, former chief of the Nepal Tourism Board, the country’s official tourism promotional body.
According to the Department of Immigration, Nepal welcomed 15,013 tourists from India, the country’s largest source market, followed by 4,029 from the United Kingdom and 4,896 from the United States.
Arrivals in March 2022 were up 2.8 times the figure in March 2021. Insiders say arrival numbers are getting closer to pre-pandemic levels.
In March 2020, Nepal received 42,776 foreign tourists before the government imposed the first lockdown and shut down the entry points.
For the last 20 months, hotels were practically empty, serving only a few returning residents and some foreigners living in quarantine.
Nepal imposed tight border controls at the start of the pandemic on March 24 in an effort to keep out Covid-19. That helped to contain the virus initially, but the tourism sector was devastated. Tourism accounts for around 8 percent of Nepal’s gross domestic product in normal times.
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council’s 2021 annual research report, the contribution of Nepal’s travel and tourism sector to the total GDP plunged by a steep 46.6 percent in 2020 due to Covid-19 related restrictions.
The London-based council said the contribution of Nepal’s tourism sector to the overall GDP nearly halved to 3.6 percent in 2020, from 6.7 percent in 2019. This means the tourism sector injected only Rs132 billion into the national economy in 2020, down from Rs247.58 billion in 2019.
The total contribution of travel and tourism to employment also plunged by 19.9 percent. This translates into 207,000 job losses in 2020. In pre-pandemic 2019, Nepal’s tourism had generated 1.04 million jobs.
“Recently, we have been noticing increased tourist arrivals. This is the perfect time for us to inspire our marketing teams and agency partners to help refresh our creative assets and develop a campaign to create demand for the destination,” said Amatya.
“It’s time to reach out to our international tour operators and airline partners, and start discussing how we can invest marketing resources together to get those aeroplane seats filled again.”
The pandemic inflicted a large negative shock on emerging Asia, a region highly dependent on tourism and exports, according to Household Vulnerability to Income Shocks in Emerging and Developing Asia, a report released by the International Monetary Fund on Friday.
Low-wage workers who are more likely to be employed informally and those who work in the services sector were the most affected. These workers have little means to smooth consumption when faced with negative income shocks as their stock of savings tends to be limited, and they often lack access to financial services or to other self-insurance mechanisms, the report said.
“After suffering those hard days, it seems the industry is recovering, though slowly,” said Joshi, who had also led Nepal’s tourism recovery initiative as a coordinator for the Tourism Recovery Task Force.
“Still, there are no promotional efforts. If we put our promotional efforts in place and promote our upcoming two international airports more aggressively, we can attain arrivals higher than the 2019 figure next year,” said Joshi.
Nepal received 1.19 million tourists in 2019.
In 2020, Nepal had just launched an ambitious Visit Nepal Year campaign with much fanfare, aiming to attract at least 2 million tourists, only to have to abandon the programme after the incipient pandemic exploded into worldwide proportions.
The disastrous year ended with 230,085 arrivals. Following a difficult end to 2020, Nepal’s tourism suffered further setbacks as countries tightened travel restrictions in response to new virus outbreaks.
According to the Nepal Tourism Board, the number of foreign visitors entering the country last year totalled 150,962, a long way from the 1.19 million arrivals in pre-Covid 2019.
Nepal’s tourism industry in 2021 sank to its lowest in four and a half decades and revenues hit rock bottom, making a big dent in the country’s economy.
The 150,962 arrivals in 2021 represent the lowest figure since 1977 when the country hosted 129,329 tourists, a year after tourist numbers in Nepal reached six digits for the first time.
Nepal on March 10 threw the door wide open to tourists, removing all pre-arrival testing requirements for fully vaxxed travellers in a bid to recharge its moribund tourism industry.
Vaccinated tourists now do not have to undergo a mandatory two-week quarantine or do a PCR test, according to the authorities.
“Now, we should think of faster recovery. We have to go to the source markets like India and Bangladesh,” said Amatya. “Let’s launch a campaign ‘Garmi Se Behal, Chalo Nepal’, meaning ‘If you want to escape the heat then take a trip to Nepal’.”
Travel trade entrepreneurs say that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has disrupted the lucrative market of Eastern European tourists. They said that higher oil prices have also pushed up the cost of long-haul flights.
“Airlines are the main carriers of tourists. Two new international airports are coming up. But the government doesn’t seem to be preparing to launch any promotional plan,” said Joshi.
“There’s a lot of pent-up demand for a vacation. As tourists nowadays make their trip without planning, Nepal needs to tap this opportunity.”