Despite the government’s decision to reopen the country for foreigners, several inconsistencies threaten the recovery of the pandemic-stricken tourism sector.
--BY TAMISH GIRI
On September 16, a 16-teamdelegation from Bahrain along with their prince Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa landed in Nepal with the purpose of ascending Mt. Manaslu, the eighth highest peak in the world. This arrival of high profile visitors for an expedition brought a glimmer of hope for the pandemic-stricken tourism industry with many seeing the visit as a catalyst and cornerstone for attracting tourists to Nepal even during these difficult times and creating a base for high value tourism in the country.
Realising the reopening of the tourism sector as an important factor to aid the recovery of the overall economy, the government decided to allow resumption of activities related to tourism and hospitality. The government decided to open Nepal for tourists for expedition after resuming international flight operations from September 2. The decision at first delighted tourism entrepreneurs who have been struggling with the coronavirus onslaught for months. However, they later denounced the government decision to send arriving foreigners into a 14-day quarantine.
According to entrepreneurs, the health protocols are confusing and do not address the key question of how the visitors will stay safe during their stay in Nepal thus hampering the recovery of the tourism sector. “The reopening will definitely help the industry and will save many jobs and livelihoods. But the government decided to open the country for tourism without doing the proper homework. Unfortunately, the country is not fully prepared due to the poor healthcare infrastructure with the coronavirus transmission still posing a threat,” says Bijay Amatya, CEO of Kora Tours.
Ashok Pokhrel, managing director of Shangrila Tours thinks that the reopening sends a positive message and the government intentions are for the good. “However, just as the road to hell is supposedly paved with good intentions, we must be ready to navigate the road ahead, which we are not. At least, not yet,” he opines.
The government took steps to resume tourism activities by allowing the Bahrain royal expeditionary team entry followed by opening domestic airlines, trekking and mountaineering activities for all foreigners.
“The decisions were essential for the tourism industry which has been the hardest hit by the Covid-19 fallout. However, the risks of coronavirus transmission are still there,” says former tourism secretary Kedar Bahadur Adhikari. According to him, the decision to reopen tourism is in the interest of entrepreneurs and people working in the sector. “The suggestions of the private sector have been incorporated in the decision to resume tourism activities. There are still some areas that haven’t been opened yet. The Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation (MoCTCA) has recommended to open all remaining areas of the tourism sector by following the health safety guidelines,” he adds.
Initially, MoCTCA had mandated a 14-day isolation period for all arriving tourists which was reduced by a week later on the request of entrepreneurs. After October 17, tourists coming to Nepal for trekking and mountaineering are required to be in quarantine for seven days. Within the period, visitors who test negative for Covid-19 will be allowed to travel to their destinations. However, a clear picture is yet to emerge about how the requirements will impact the inflow of tourists.
Despite the federal government’s decision to open up the country for foreigners, several local bodies have restricted the entry of tourists into their areas over fears of possible coronavirus transmissions. Tourism entrepreneurs say that the lack of coordination between federal, provincial and the local governments will make the recovery sluggish and will also tarnish Nepal’s image in the international tourism market. “Personally speaking, I am neither for nor against the decision of the government. However, we need to be aware that the confusion seen in terms of reopening the country for foreigners can tarnish Nepal’s image which will hurt us for a long time. It shows extreme callous and unprofessional behaviour to open the country without really thinking of what needs to be done in terms of preparation,” says Raj Gyawali, founding director of Social Tours. According to him, this situation will eventually result in a reduced number of people travelling to Nepal, disappointed visitors and lots of pivots in plans which could lead to further alienation of the tourism industry by the local people who already consider the tourism service providers as a bit of an enemy.
Pokhrel of Shangrila Tours also sees that the requirements set by local bodies are at odds with the federal government’s decision complicating the recovery of the Nepali tourism sector. “Having said that, the local bodies do need to be given a say in these matters as well. Any solution that is imposed on the local levels might negatively impact the interaction between local people and tourists. One of the big selling points for Nepal prior to Covid-19 pandemic was the friendliness of the locals towards visitors,” he says. Former tourism secretary Adhikari also suggests for harmonisation in the policies and efforts of all three tiers of government to ease the problems in the recovery process. Tourism entrepreneurs and experts call for uniform policies for the entire nation so that the tourism sector can revive smoothly.
With the country reopened for foreigners, the inflow of tourists is slowly gathering pace. In the month of Kartik (mid-October to mid-November), over 2,000 tourists came to Nepal offering some hope that tourism will gradually be back on track. With the pandemic raging all over the world, it is not clear if the number will increase in the coming months. But it is our preparedness that matters the most at the moment for recovery, say tourism entrepreneurs. “I would like to hope that what I am going to say will be wrong but, that would be wishful thinking as I have not seen anything on the ground to prove otherwise. We are absolutely not prepared to ensure the safety of arriving tourists,” says Pokhrel.
Tourism entrepreneurs stress on the need for having a whole new approach in terms of health safety requirements for tourists. The protocols that are currently in place were designed some four months ago when the rate of local Covid-19 transmission was low and there was a fear that tourists would bring the pathogen with them. However, the last few months have seen community level transmission of coronavirus growing exponentially placing Nepal among the Asian countries with the highest number of Covid-19 infections.
“It will be an extreme hard-sell to convince foreigners that we are a safe destination. They will ask questions like am I going to a Covid hotspot? What happens if I contract the disease in the country? What type of medical care can I expect to receive? And if the unthinkable were to transpire what happens next? These questions must be answered before we can say to the tourists that we are ready for them. The yearning to make an earning cannot and must nor override the safety of visitors at any cost. We cannot survive a public relations debacle on top of this already unsightly mess,” opines Pokhrel.
Amatya urges the need for the government and the private sector to work hand-in-hand to combat the crisis. “Besides the health safety protocols, we need infrastructure such as Covid hospitals and healthcare centres where tourists can go and have treatment without any hassle. Similarly, situational reports and information also play an important role in increasing the confidence of visitors. Unfortunately, the government has not been able to disseminate accurate and timely information,” says Amatya.