The restrictions in place for international travellers and the government's apathy towards talking to other countries to take Nepal out from their travel bans are big hindrances on the path towards tourism sector recovery.
On September 15, Ashish Shrestha and his father, who were on a business trip in Delhi, were forced to cancel their flight home to Kathmandu. The officials of Air India stopped Aashish and his father, who had received their first dose of Covid jabs, from boarding the flight because they didn't make a hotel reservation for quarantine upon returning to Kathmandu. They were forced out of the airport, and had their Rs 32,000 worth of air tickets cancelled. According to travel and tourism entrepreneurs, unclear and confusing health protocols implemented by the authorities in Nepal for international travellers are causing problems like the one the father-son duo went through recently dampening the prospect of the tourism sector's recovery.
The month of September, which is traditionally known as the busiest tourism window, has ended. However, major tourist destinations that used to bustle with foreigners before the pandemic, are mostly deserted now even with the Covid-19 restrictions lifted leaving business owners disappointed.
The travel, tourism and hospitality sector contribute 8 percent to Nepal's gross domestic product. Official statistics show that the sector generated an income of Rs 240.7 billion and provided direct and indirect job opportunities to over 1 million Nepalis in 2018.
Bhola B. Thapa, president of the President Group of Companies, says that it will take a lot of effort to take the Nepali tourism sector out of the slump. "The September-December period is the peak tourism season in the country. But looking at the current rate of booking and cancellations, I don't think the situation will become normal soon for us even with the vaccination drive and ease in international travel," he mentions.
Bijaya Amatya, CEO of Kora Tours Nepal, observes a similar situation. The state of travel bookings by foreigners at his company is declining with a sharp fall in hotel room reservations alongside growing cancellations. "Tours are getting canceled rapidly as the country is not practically open for tourists due to the mandatory quarantine. In one group so far, we have lost 500 pax," he shares.
According to Thapa, some travel agencies have reported that they are seeing promising bookings. But can the agencies sustain the tourist reservations remains the question, as nothing substantial has come forth.
After the second wave of Covid-19 hit Nepal in May this year, the government stopped issuing on-arrival visas to all foreign nationals in the country which is among the few travel restrictions yet to be lifted. Similarly, Nepal is still in the 'red zone' in terms of coronavirus risks for most of its tourist source countries. This has created difficulties for foreigners willing to travel to the Himalayan nation. Under current travel arrangements, tourists visiting Nepal have to get their documents approved by the Department of Tourism or the Nepal Tourism Board. Likewise, there is a seven-day quarantine requirement upon arriving in Nepal which makes foreigners reluctant to come here. "At a time when efforts of all stakeholders should be on recovery and revival of the tourism sector, the absurd rules and regulations have hampered the arrival of tourists which was expected to pick up fast after the lifting of the prohibitory orders," says Thapa.
On the other hand, the government has not been able to talk to governments of other countries to take Nepal out of their travel 'red lists'. Tourism entrepreneurs say that despite having higher vaccination rates in South Asia, it is an irony that countries like the United Kingdom and the United States still have high travel restrictions in place for Nepal. For instance, Nepal, which currently has a vaccination rate of 19.3 percent has been placed on the UK's red list, while other South Asian countries with lower vaccination rates such as India (14 percent), Pakistan (10.7 percent) and Bangladesh (19.3 percent) have been placed in the 'amber list' meaning travellers to and from these countries have to fulfill Covid-19 restrictions to a lesser degree than those on the red list.
"From the booking point of view, the peak tourism season of September-December is almost over for us. We had hoped that this season would be pivotal for the recovery of our tourism sector," opines Amatya, adding "Due to too much uncertainty, we are not expecting big business but a small momentum in tourism if the government eases the restrictions to foreigners and Nepal can get out of the red lists of major tourist source countries."
According to the Tourism Department, a total of 230,085 foreigners came to Nepal in 2020. The number this year is likely to drop further as the country has received only 66,966 visitors in the eight months of 2021.
Tourism entrepreneurs say they are ready to follow all necessary health safety protocols and that the government needs to withdraw quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated tourists visiting Nepal to help support the struggling travel and hospitality businesses.
"At present, our company has almost no business. We are only trying to bring two groups of visitors who will only confirm their visits if the government removes the quarantine requirement for fully vaccinated foreigners within a week," says Raj Gyawali, co-founder of Social Tours, adding, "In times like these, the focus of authorities should be on doing things properly and taking advice from people who know the underlying problems to help chart a path towards revival." Gyawali is currently working on a tourism recovery plan for Rwanda.
Nepal Tourism Board has announced a three-pronged strategy for the revival of tourism in Nepal in coordination with all major tourism associations in the country. Entrepreneurs say that while the implementation of the strategy is important, the urgent need is to drop mandatory quarantine for fully vaccinated travellers and those who test negative for Covid-19, to make a clear travel advisory and spread the message out to the world and to also resume on-arrival visas at the land and air border points. "After all, when festivals, weddings, and gatherings of up to 25 people have been allowed, the least we have to fear is from fully vaccinated travellers who come here following all protocols," says Gyawali.
According to stakeholders, the absence of a tourism minister is also affecting the recovery process. Due to the disagreements over appointing ministers within the coalition parties, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has not been able to expand the government two months after forming one. Currently, Dueba has taken responsibility for the tourism minister.
Tourism entrepreneurs say that the old ways of doing tourism won't be sufficient for the recovery and revival of the sector as the world has changed a lot since the outbreak of coronavirus two years ago in Wuhan, China. "We need to focus on developing new tourism products that can attract tourists easily. There are big opportunities in wellness, yoga, meditation, pilgrim, and spiritual tourism besides regular adventure and cultural tourism. International marketing of the destinations in the country is also very important," suggests Amatya.