Stakeholders say policy and compliance shift can get back tourist confidence in Nepal
-- BY TAMISH GIRI
After learning about the tragic death of 72 passengers, including individuals from India, Russia, South Korea, Ireland, Australia, Argentina, and France, a British travel agent publicly stated that he won’t ever fly domestically in Nepal. The crash of the French-Italian consortium-built ATR-72 aircraft operated by Yeti Airlines in Pokhara was devastating and has caused worldwide anger and anxiety towards Nepali airlines. The incident has also negatively impacted the credibility of Nepali airlines among tourists.
Albert Kampermann, an Assistant Professor at Open Universiteit and Chairman at Himalayan Care Hands, took to social media to advise international tourists to avoid Nepali domestic flights. Kampermann argued that air safety standards in Nepal are significantly below international standards, which puts the safety of passengers at risk.
The frequent and severe incidents of accidents in Nepal are also causing concern among prospective travellers, leading travel agents to believe that this news will have a long-lasting impact on tourism in the region.
Pankaj Pradhananga, Director of Four Season Travel & Tours, has stated that the recent crash has significantly damaged Nepal's reputation as a tourism destination. He added that European tourists seem to be hesitant about flying on domestic flights in Nepal and that the recent crash has reinforced the ban on Nepali registered airlines from flying in European skies. As a result, the EU market has been the most adversely affected, according to Pradhananga.
Since the first air crash in Nepal in 1955, a total of 914 individuals have lost their lives in various air accidents. The recent Yeti Airlines crash in Pokhara was the 104th air crash in the country and the third deadliest in terms of fatalities. Shockingly, this was the second disaster in a series within the last nine months, with the previous one being the Tara aircraft crash in the Mustang district on May 29th, 2022.
Tourism entrepreneurs have expressed the opinion that Nepal must acknowledge the shortcomings and work to address the gaps in the current system to prevent further occurrences of such accidents.
In honour of the passengers who lost their lives in the plane crash, Yeti Airlines cancelled all of its flights on January 16th. However, the airline is still struggling to recover from the impact of the ATR-72 plane crash. According to Sudarshan Bartaula, spokesperson for Yeti Airlines, it is doing only 60% of the business compared to the pre-crash period despite the airline's efforts to bounce back.
Bartaula stated that in the past week, the airline has been slowly returning to its regular operations, with only four out of five ATR-72 aircraft currently in operation. He added that at the time of the crash, the tourism season was coming to an end, and the airline was carrying around 2000-2200 passengers a day. Currently, the number of daily passengers is around 1800-1900, but the airline expects this number to increase with the upcoming tourism season.
Previously, during the peak season, Yeti Airlines operated eight flights to Pokhara. However, following the crash, the airline has reduced the number of flights to four due to a decline in demand. Despite observing a 60-70% recovery in the airline's business after the crash, it has not yet returned to normal levels.
Moreover, other domestic airlines have also experienced a significant decline in flights and passenger numbers after the crash.
Tri Ratna Manandhar, a former Director General of the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) and a current member of the CAAN Board of Directors, acknowledges that accidents are unfortunate incidents not only for the aviation and tourism sector but also for the entire nation.
Manandhar expresses confidence that everyone working in the aviation industry is committed to safety. However, accidents can still happen, which he considers to be the most unfortunate aspect of the industry.
Many popular tourist destinations, such as Chitwan and Pokhara, require a long drive to reach. Unfortunately, the poor condition of the roads has made intercity travel a challenging and unpleasant experience, say tour operators.
Pokhara, which is the gateway to the Annapurna Circuit and a popular hub for tourists, has been particularly affected by the poor road conditions. The roadway to Pokhara is currently under construction, causing significant delays and discomfort for travellers. Indian tourists, who have a special fondness for Pokhara, also use the city as a gateway to Muktinath, a sacred pilgrimage site for Hindus. Although flying is the best way to reach Pokhara from Kathmandu, the recent air crash has eroded the confidence of passengers in air travel.
“Needless to say, no one comes to visit a destination to suffer,” said Pradhananga.
Regarding the worst-case scenario, he explains that FTO/wholesale tour operators may avoid Nepal as their preferred destination until confidence is restored. Alternatively, they may opt for shorter trips that focus on the Kathmandu valley, he added.
Manandhar believes that while accidents may affect travellers' psychology and tourism in the short term, it would only be a temporary effect. Thus, though Indian tourists may reschedule their programs, the impact would be brief, he added.
However, travel agents caution that the crash could damage the confidence of Nepali airlines in their international routes and in situations where passengers have options to choose from.
The travel agents emphasise that while the government's decision to implement new air travel safety improvements is a step in the right direction, it is not enough. They are calling for a major shift in policy and increased compliance with regulations, as well as the separation of implementation and regulating bodies.
Meanwhile, CAAN has implemented new air travel safety requirements for airlines operating in Nepal. The aviation regulator has decided to mandate stabilised approaches for all aircraft in Nepal after reaching 500 feet above ground level during visual flight rules (VFR) operations in rural airports, and 1,000 feet AGL for aircraft conducting VFR operations in other airports. This measure aims at enhancing flight safety by reducing the risk of incidents such as runway excursions, hard landings, bounced landings, and long flares. Similarly, in airports with IFR systems, all aircraft except for STOL aircraft are required to follow the instrumental flight rules (IFR) approach, even during daytime.
CAAN has also decided to conduct skill tests for all aircraft examiners in the country from the respective aircraft manufacturer and revoke the augmented flight time limitation provision to prevent potential crew fatigue risks. Moreover, a landing limit of eight and flight time limitation of eight hours a day has been recommended for STOL operations.
Meanwhile, tourism entrepreneurs say that there is no easy solution to the issue. They assert that leaders in the government, business, and social sectors must work diligently to ensure a safer sky. "It doesn't inspire much confidence. These are minimum standards that are expected anywhere else in the world," says a travel agent. "Many of the points listed here are meaningless if there are no penalties, both financial and regulatory, for non-compliance."
Pradhananga suggests that CAAN should be split into two entities to establish proper checks and balances.
Manandhar, on the other hand, feels that safety is a relative term, as fatal accidents occur frequently on the roads. “Such concerns rise only after the accidents. CAAN is always trying to convey the message that aviation is the safest mode of travel,” he added. Stating that accidents naturally spread negative messages, Manandhar said preventing accidents is the only way to prevent such negativity. “The international media has already done its job, the Nepali aviation sector now needs to work towards the right policies and practices to prove itself,” he added.
Tourism entrepreneurs believe that passengers need to feel confident and the media needs to provide pragmatic and rational coverage. Pradhananga suggests that raising the safety bars to international level with zero tolerance through rigorous aircraft safety checks will help build confidence among tourists to consider Nepal as a destination.