-- BY TAMISH GIRI
Last year, a total of 150,962 foreign tourists visited Nepal, a record low in decades, lower than 230,085 that the country welcomed in 2020. It was a decline of 87 percent compared to the arrival figures of 2019. Despite the vaccination drive and rigorous efforts of stakeholders, the COVID pandemic continues to keep the industry in misery. Tourism entrepreneurs fear the Omicron wave will spoil the recovery hopes in 2022.
The industry had shown some hopes of recovery in 2021. But restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the Delta variant worsened the situation for the industry. Though the government removed the seven-day quarantine requirement and resumed issuance of on-arrival visas to all vaccinated travellers in the last week of September, just ahead of the peak tourist season, only around 61,000 tourists arrived in the final quarter of 2021. This left tourism entrepreneurs with no other option than laying off staffers.
Bijaya Amatya, CEO of Kora Tours, shared that the pandemic triggered an unprecedented collapse of the travel and tourism industry and that the recovery will now be slower than previously thought.
Another entrepreneur, Raj Gyawali, a co-founder of Social Tours, added that the Omicron wave suggests that 2022 won't be a great year for the industry. “Mountaineering will work again, as long as the wave comes a bit later in the year and not directly around March. The winter season will be like 2021 in bits and pieces. Numbers might go slightly higher than 2021," he explained.
Many think that 2022 will be more like early 2020 with visitor numbers continuing to slide as there will be less VFR (visiting friends and relatives) travel from abroad to Nepal.
Ashok Pokharel, director and COO of Shangrila Tours Pvt Ltd, sees the arrival numbers climbing to about 200,000 or so if better news about the virus comes by the second half of 2022. He also shared that tourism revenue will be stagnant as too many suppliers are chasing too few tourists offering cheaper prices.
Gyawali, however, thinks that people will come regardless of the situation as they are fed up with the COVID situation. “The best-case scenario will be that the next wave comes only in May, post the spring season, and that there are no more waves. It will jack up arrivals by 50 percent or so,” he added.
Tourism entrepreneurs fear the Omicron wave, in the worst case scenario, will strike at the beginning of March, with the country going into lockdown for a while. They say it will discourage arrivals, and there might be another wave at the end of the year, in September, ending tourism prospects for the year.
“The best-case scenario is that the virus disappears as quickly as it came. Alternatively, a more robust, easier, no vaccine treatment is found, and we all live with the virus and its various mutations to come,” shared Pokharel. If things go wrong, 2022 will be no better than 2021, he added.
Amatya opined that if COVID variants do not pose further problems, the industry will get some business from spring/summer of 2022. “The situation will improve from September. But the real recovery will start gradually from 2023,” he added.
An additional wave could spell disaster for the travel and tourism businesses that contribute 8 percent to the country's gross domestic product and provide more than 1.05 million direct and indirect jobs.
Entrepreneurs say the tourism footfalls will be small in 2022. Some reckon it might climb to around 250,000 to 300,000.
With the tourism industry in tatters, one would expect the government to come up with policies, plans and programs for its recovery. But entrepreneurs say that the government has done the least in this regard. They say that the private sector is well prepared to handle a large volume of tourists, but the government is lagging behind.
“I never think Nepal is prepared for anything. A ton of operators are ready and people are vaccinated, but the scenario is not resting on travel operators. It is the government that fails us, and the lack of understanding of how much an ailing tourism industry affects the economy,” Gyawali added.
Pokharel also thinks that the government is not prepared at all for anything. “It is quite unrealistic to prepare against something we have little understanding of. We need to prepare to be able to change our course of action as quickly as the situation may warrant,” he added.
In the meantime, tourism stakeholders voice that the right communication and logical responses to the waves coming are crucial for recovery. They, however, share that both of these are lacking big time. Their frustration is that the government does not communicate well with the market and has not used any crisis communication strategy.
Just random news and "please come to Nepal" won't work, said Gyawali. “Crisis communication is a skill, and with the right communication, things can turn around. The tourism industry needs to collaborate with Nepal Tourism Board (NRB) to develop a cohesive recovery strategy, prepared by experts, and not by committees (as is usual), who come up with a clear strategy,” says Gyawali. “But the sad part is, this will not happen.”
Meanwhile, Pokharel opined that the tourism stakeholders need to have a quick response marketing plan in place. “Identify the product/market mixes we want to exploit first. Have the required budget lined up and wait for things to fall into place. We haven't even begun to agree on what the marketing opportunities might be in 2022,” he shared.
As things stand, the best saviour of tourism would be higher vaccine compliance. For this, the government needs to speed up vaccination drive in the country. It also needs to make sure that more scheduled flights are in operation with increased seats and more international airlines are flying in. These are very critical for tourism recovery.
Although tourism entrepreneurs say that they did not hold out too much hope for 2021, many were rattled when the final arrival numbers were revealed. They might have little control over what 2022 arrivals will look like, but a strategy to lead the direction of the tourism sector is crucial if the industry is to see rosy prospects.
“The argument is already two years too late. Are we going back to tourist numbers or dollars? Do we want to up our game or let things be as they are? What were our worst mistakes in the past, and can we rectify them? The government, the NTB, and entrepreneurs should be clear about it,” shared Pokharel.
Looking at the overall scenario and narratives of the tourism industry, the government must have a well thought and sustainable marketing and recovery strategy. This is very crucial for the long-term growth of tourism. Revival of the sector requires collaboration and coordination across the travel and tourism ecosystem.