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Tourism At A Crossroads

Nepal's tourism promotion programme in PATA conference
Nepal's tourism promotion programme in PATA conference

July 6, 2016

The Nepalese tourism industry is not stable; it’s always moving upward and downward. The tourism sector witnessed major instability during the ten years of the Maoist insurgency, three periodic border blockades by India, deadly avalanche on Mount Everest and during the devastating earthquake of 2015.

Although Nepal has a number of high tourist attractions for its development, yet it is struggling with enormous problems of mismanagement, poor infrastructures and limited external investment.

The tourism destinations are mainly concentrated in Kathmandu, Pokhara and Chitwan. Hundreds of tourist spots in the hills, mountains and plains are still neglected in the absence of proper infrastructure and lack of international airports outside Kathmandu.


Airport constraint

The biggest impediment to the development of the tourism sector is our international airport in Kathmandu, which has been listed among the worst airports in the world by travel websites. It cannot handle the flow of international passengers efficiently. Not only is the airport bad, the safety record of Nepalese airlines is also way below standard. Consequently, the European Union has banned Nepalese carriers from flying in their countries.

Facilities must improve drastically to deliver the minimum to the passengers at the Tribhuvan International Airport, the only entrance point for international air travellers in Nepal.

The tiny departure zone of this airport is overcrowded and not well managed. Long queues of tourists at the immigration and time-consuming manual processing give a grim picture of Nepal on arrival. The customs is so congested, it looks like a fish market.  Having to wait for hours to get one’s luggage is normal practice there. Once out of the terminal building, crowds seen at the taxi and vehicle parking areas create another bad impression.

The first phase of the upgradation work at the airport has been underway for many years, but no noticeable improvement in providing the minimum facilities for passengers is seen. There is a plan to extend the airport terminals (both arrival and departure), apron area, runway, number of baggage belts at arrival and parking areas, but how many years this will take is hard to say. The aviation authorities keep only blaming the contractor!

Lack of transit facility at the airport for passengers travelling beyond Kathmandu and the operation of the airport for only twenty hours a day are not in conformity with the standards of international airports. The image of the state-owned Nepal Airlines further creates a bad impression on international tourists.


Tourism attractions

Nepal’s natural beauty, cultural heritage and innumerable tourist spots are the major attractions for tourists. Nepal is considered to be the world’s biggest museum.

The Himalayas are a place of complete bliss, delight and peace. While travelling in the mountains of Nepal, one can perceive an imaginary remote paradise on earth, a remote and exotic utopia. Shangri-La is still alive in Nepal.

Seven cultural and religious world heritage sites of the Kathmandu Valley are situated within walking distances, not found elsewhere in the world. Eight of the world’s 10 tallest peaks above 8,000 metres are in Nepal.

The famous pagoda style architecture is Nepal’s souvenir to the world. Originating in Nepal, it found its way to Tibet and on to China and spread to Japan and other East Asian countries.

Nepal has the geographical privilege of being a neighbour to the most populated countries of the world, India and China, and there are high chances of attracting more tourists from these two countries. Nepal, being the central point of Hinduism and Buddhism, also has the potential to attract enough tourists from South Asian and South East Asian countries.

As for adventure tourism, it is considered the most likely place on earth for Westerners.


Optimistic future

Nepal has the potential to be among the top attractions on the global tourism map and has strong prospects to be the top destination in South Asia. Rapid reform is, thus, required in the traditionally slow pace seen of this sector. The government should take the leading role in constructing mega infrastructure projects to give a boost to the tourism industry, which could spontaneously attract foreign investors.

The recent budget of the Government of Nepal provides optimistic confidence regarding infrastructure development in the tourism sector. Record-breaking billions have been allocated for the construction of regional international airports at Pokhara and Bhairahawa outside Kathmandu.

Likewise, land acquisition for the Nijgadh International Airport and construction of the Kathmandu Nijgadh Fast Track road have guaranteed the construction of these long- awaited projects of national pride, which would be a milestone and great turning point.

Tourism supports poverty mitigation, generating employment and earning foreign currency in Nepal. A year after the devastating earthquake last year, a message that Nepal is safe for travel has been transmitted around the world, and tourists have started to arrive in significant numbers.

Some gradual improvements are also being observed. Construction of big and small hotels at the tourist sites across the country are good signs for tourism recovery. Road and air connectivity are expanding in most of the destinations. The reconstruction of historical and cultural heritage sites and monuments devastated by the earthquake is also sending a positive message to the visitors. The announcement of Nepal Visit Year slated for 2018 would certainly be a remarkable takeoff year for this sector.


By Hari Prasad Shrestha

The writer is a former Under Secretary, Ministry of Finance and was associated with the United Nations Development Program in Sierra Leone and South Sudan.