-- BY TAMISH GIRI
Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Thamel's popular spots, Purple Haze and LOD, used to be brimming with foreign tourists. However, the number of such tourists has dried up even COVID risks have subsided now. Like LOD and Purple Haze, another pioneer bar, KC's, has also seen foreign tourist footfalls go down. However, the growing number of locals and domestic tourists has given a much-needed fillip to these establishments.
During the pandemic days, the streets of Thamel were eerily silent, with pubs, bars, and restaurants becoming ghostly vacant, causing an unprecedented loss of business. However, the situation has changed lately, and restaurants, pubs, spas, and clubs are observing crowds, mostly locals partying.
Swapnil Sharma, a co-partner at Purple Haze, shares that the local music lovers have filled the space of foreigners in his rock bar. However, the consumption of foreigners is unmatchable as the locals tend to spend less. “It has left a gap in our revenue. However, we are glad to our local guests who have kept us packed most of the time,” Sharma said.
During the repeated lockdowns, Purple Haze failed to pay its staff for almost 17 months as the rock bar had to close down to contain the spread of the pathogenic virus. Though the bar has been drying up of foreigners lately, it has observed tremendous growth in terms of crowd numbers bringing staff numbers to the pre-pandemic level. Likewise, Purple Haze is anticipating its business to get back to the pre-pandemic levels very soon.
Ritesh Marwadi, the owner of KC's Bar, echoed Sharma and said the business at his bar is now better compared to the pandemic times. Though business is coming back to shape, we still don't have foreign tourists, he said. Marwadi added that as the cases are rising again, he is taking needful precautions.
According to Thamel Tourism Development Council (TTDC), an industry lobby of businesses operating in Thamel, there are 10,000 rental spaces in Thamel, Paknajol, Kaldhara, and the Dhobichaur area. The rent of such spaces varies from Rs 12,000 to Rs 4 million a month. TTDC informs that 2,200 landlords in the area receive more than Rs 800 million as rental fee from different businesses every month.
Not only pubs, bars and spas, businesses solely dependent on foreigners like tour operators and trekking agencies are yet to recover from the severe blow of the pandemic.
Tejendra S Poudel, CEO of Across World Travel and Asia Nepal Holiday Pvt Ltd, shared with New Busienss Age that his business is still not back to its feet. "In my 26 years of experience running a tour agency in Thamel, I had never seen this place look this deserted. However, as the main tourist season is yet to start, I am optimistic that Thamel will see the hustle and bustle of foreigners again,” he added.
Thamel is popularly known as a touristic hub in Kathmandu and has been the main attraction for tourists for more than four decades. It evolved as the heart of the tourism industry in Kathmandu with the arrival of the hippies. Before Thamel, the tourist attraction was concentrated in the Jhonchen area. Tourist movements gradually started increasing in the 1960s in the area which was then known as Tabitha Bahal. Loaded with all the facilities to entertain the tourists and make them feel at home, Thamel is considered an area that never sleeps and never closes. Likewise, with the alleys filled with handicraft, souvenirs, clothing, coffee and gear shops, it is the most visited place by foreigners while they are in Nepal.
According to Poudel, Thamel is distinctly popular among tourists. “It is so popular that while I was in Canada, people didn't recognize me as a Nepali but as a local from Thamel. Thamel is the most iconic landmark for most of the westerners visiting Nepal,” he added.
Many business operators in Thamel managed to keep the team during the pandemic, and paid full salaries to their staff. But post-lockdown, many businesses have left Thamel due to financial hardships.
According to a survey done by Kathmandu Living Labs led by former CEO of the Nepal Tourism Board Deepak Raj Joshi, about 17% of the tourism enterprises in Nepal, most of them operating in Thamel, have permanently shut down since March 2020.
Ram Chandra Giri, general secretary of TTDC, said more than 2,000 travel and trekking agencies were operating in Thamel before the pandemic. “More than 20% of them has now left Thamel,” he added.
Conservative estimates put average daily turnover in the Thamel area during high season as Rs 200 million, while during off-season it was around Rs 100 million. There were almost 10,000 business firms - hotels, restaurants, travel agencies, money exchange, trekking areas, and handicraft businesses - solely dependent on foreign tourists in areas around Thamel, Paknajol, Chhetrapati, Kaldhara, and Nardevi. TTDC estimates the total value of these business establishments, including the value of land, in Thamel at around Rs 6 trillion.
Meanwhile, tourism entrepreneurs and owners of other businesses in Thamel say the post-pandemic Thamel has a different character. Earlier it used to be a tourism hub, but now it's more of a party hub for the locals, they share.
This shift was already happening for a while, but the pandemic cemented it for sure, as that was the only way for it to revive, said Raj Gyawali, co-founder of Social Tours.
Likewise, Sharma told New Business Age that post-pandemic Thamel has observed drastic changes in visitor composition. “Now the footfall is mostly locals. As local people have started to go out post-COVID, it also has contributed to the rise in the number of locals frequenting Thamel,” he added.
Likewise, movements of youth have increased and Thamel has become a party center. The change is visible. However, the businesses in Thamel are not benefiting much from the iflux of the locals as their spending capacity has been reduced due to inflation. Likewise, all businesses have not benefitted equally.
“Thamel needs foreign tourists for its sustainibility as they contribute to all the businesses in the area,” Sharma added.
Gyawali believes Thamel still has an important role to play in tourism. “After all, it was where adventure tourism started as a hub post-Hippie movement. Thamel could play a key role in getting travellers to also meet locals. It's a point of contact for sure,” Gyawali said, adding: “For this to happen, it has to move on modernising itself, make more walking streets, and start working as a hub. We need a big change of thinking. Unfortunately, it takes time in Nepal.”
Sharma said that Thamel will remain the same, a partying and tourist hub, and should be the same for tourists and people seeking nightlife.
Tourism entrepreneurs have also underlined the need to make Thamel accessible for people of all ages. They say that now is the right time to correct the image of the place. Similarly, they also say that the local association, TTDC, should take the needful initiative for the changes.
Giri told New Business Age that his team is doing homework for things that need to be looked into. “We are collecting suggestions at the moment. The TTDC will develop its plans based on these suggestions from the experts. The changes are imminent. It might take time but will happen sooner or later,” he added.