International flights are set to resume in Nepal next week but Lakpa Tamang, a 31-year-old tourist guide in Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, doubts if it will be business as usual. “I’m not sure if I will go back to the city anytime soon,” Tamang said.
Since April, he has been living in a remote village in Solukhumbu region, more than 200 kilometers from Kathmandu, where he has started a poultry farm. He used his savings of 15 years and took out a loan from a relative to start the farm. The Nepal government has announced a slew of measures to revive the tourism sector but Tamang said that he cannot afford a risk. “They (government) can take a U-turn. You never know,” he told VICE News. “The industry has become uncertain after coronavirus.” Tamang’s employer and president of Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal, Khum Bahadur Subedi, is distressed about his mounting losses. More than 80 groups he was supposed to receive this year, and take to places like Everest base camp, Annapurna base camp, Ghorepani village and Mera Peak, have cancelled or postponed their plans due to the coronavirus. “I tried to help some of my staffers by arranging bank loans but this is not sustainable in the long run. If 2021 is not good, many of them might quit the industry.”
Last month, the government announced that international flights will resume from August 17; trekking, mountaineering hotels and restaurants businesses were allowed to function from July 30; and travel agents could take bookings for the autumn season. However, travel entrepreneurs are unsure if the government’s decision to open up the sector will inspire confidence, in the absence of a clear protocol and rising coronavirus cases. Then there’s the dilemma that too strict rules could equally discourage tourists.
A senior official told Kathmandu Post that the government is in the process of drafting stringent norms “purely aimed at discouraging travelers’ movement.” These measures may include obtaining visas from Nepal’s diplomatic mission in the origin-country, 14 days of quarantine and a negative polymerase chain reaction test.
Previously, Nepal had a relatively liberal visa policy allowing tourist visas on arrival. Indians, who do not require visas to travel to Nepal, formed the biggest chunk of more than 1.1 million foreign tourists who visited last year.
Nepal is home to eight of the world’s fourteen highest peaks above 8,000 meters including Mount Everest, Kanchenjunga and Annapurna.
The spring season, considered best to scale Mount Everest, was lost to the lockdown. The autumn season is a favourite for trekkers who want to explore smaller peaks and far off valleys.
The nationwide lockdown, lasting 120 days, was lifted on July 20.
Partial restrictions were enforced in 14 districts on August 5 against the backdrop of a surge in COVID-19 cases.
As of Monday, 22, 972 people in Nepal got infected by the coronavirus; 75 have died.
Nepal’s tourism industry is staring at $400 million in losses due to COVID-19, noted a study commissioned by the UN Development Programme. Kul Bahadur Gurung, general secretary of Nepal Mountaineering Association, said that stakeholders in the tourism industry held interactions with the government as early as April to chalk out a “survival, revival, arrival” strategy. But it did not bear much fruit.
“Unfortunately, even in August, not much has been done and we are still in the survival stage,” Gurung told VICE News.
In 2019, the contribution of travel and tourism to employment in Nepal was around seven percent (1.03 million jobs), according to World Travel & Tourism Council data.
Out of 182.2 million jobs in the sector in the Asia Pacific region, 33 percent of jobs will be lost due to COVID-19, per the best case scenario projected by the Council.
Gurung said that the most vulnerable are those belonging to low-income groups including guides and porters. “The majority of them don’t have a backup plan. Relying on agriculture is not a sustainable option because they are not updated with the latest technology,” he said. “And the government has no relief package for them.”
By December, Gurung normally starts getting inquiries for the coming spring season. Even in December 2019, he got 70 percent less booking for the 2020 spring season. “I was confused,” Gurung said. “I was told that people were hesitant to visit as Nepal was close to China.”
The latest edition of the United Nations World Tourism Organization Travel Restrictions Report notes that 115 destinations (53 percent of all destinations worldwide) continue to keep their borders completely closed for tourism. 87 destinations have now eased travel restrictions, while just four have completely lifted all restrictions.
But there is some optimism. Dawa Steven Sherpa, mountaineer and entrepreneur, told VICE News that if the country receives even just five to ten percent of tourists it got last year, it will be a good stepping stone for spring 2021.
“There is a rare breed of mountaineers who have a high tolerance for risks. They will be the first ones to travel once the restrictions are eased,” Sherpa said. “They know that they will get discounts because the economy is in bad shape and they don’t mind a short period of quarantine.”
Sherpa said that after the 2015 earthquake, tourists were back by 2016, giving him hope that a similar trend will continue. Plus, he believes Nepal has an incomparable gem that will save the industry. “Don’t forget that Nepal is home to Everest, a unique destination, which will continue to attract tourists.”